Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Deceit, greed and manipulation continually surface in Apple Original Films and A24’s newest psychological thriller, Sharper.
The film opens with a budding romance between a shy but amiable bookstore owner named Tom (Justice Smith) and Sandra (Brianna Middleton), the English PhD student who walks into his life, enamored by his original signed edition of Jane Eyre. As their relationship develops over the subsequent weeks, though, it becomes clear one of them is hiding something — the first thread in a movie centered around one elaborate con after the other.
Every single character in Sharper, which boasts an ensemble cast featuring Academy Award-winner Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan and John Lithgow, represents a different pseudo-moral strand in a web of beautiful lies.
“You can’t cheat an honest man. That’s why we never feel bad about the mark,” Max, an experienced con artist played by Stan, tells Sandra after swindling Tom out of $350,000. And this contention holds true over the course of the movie, as every single character is duped in some form or other, no character ever truly honest.
Told through split chapters, each from the point of view of a different character, Sharper succeeds in creating the necessary tension to keep audiences engaged, but struggles to move past a load of contrivances that hinder the plot twists behind the story.
It doesn’t take long to detect the predictable pattern of Sharper: a repetitive cycle of betrayal in which no character is loyal and no one is safe. Yet even with flawed execution, Sharper manages to capture viewers for much of its nearly two-hour runtime. Relying on the dynamic presence and energy of its characters, the film pushes through a non-linear pattern of narrative complexity slowly elucidating in a gloomy Manhattanite setting with relative ease.
Sandra is revealed to be not a graduate student with an admiration for the work of Jane Austen, but a spiraling drug addict, hired to carry out cons by Max. His unempathetic presence and air of manipulative entitlement is enough to send her after Tom’s inheritance and, eventually, break her.
Then there’s Max’s partner in crime, Madeline, played by Moore with a mendaciously layered intellect that makes her perhaps the most enigmatic force of the ensemble cast. Married to Richard Hobbes (Lithgow), a philanthropic billionaire who is father to none other than Tom, Madeline skillfully navigates the explosive complications and cunning threats that surround her with beguiling innocence.
It’s an innocence that, like the rest of the characters in Sharper, is subtly dishonest and not quite layered enough to draw our attention away from who she really is, from the dangerous implications she poses to those around her.
But Sharper’s fatal flaw lies in the fact that the rest of its characters resort to this same method of constant treachery, trading real story development for shock factor so diluted it feels like cinematic clickbait.
The film doesn't subvert the genre so much as encumber Sharper with poorly-developed surprises that fail to earn the characters they affect. Sharper ends with an unsatisfying resolution that parallels the cyclical cons it throws at the audience for a convoluted two hours.
Thumbnail courtesy of Apple TV+