A sharper is someone who “lives by their wits,” as the opening onscreen text of Sharper informs us. The term could describe nearly every character in this twisty thriller, as well as director Benjamin Caron and writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, who repeatedly, but fairly, con the audience with deceptive storytelling. This definition appears above an image of a watch being meticulously assembled. While a watch does play a small role in the story, this is primarily a metaphor for the careful clockwork construction of Sharper itself.
Were it not for that opening explanation—as well as advance publicity as to what sort of film this is—you might at first mistake it for a gentle romance. Tom (Justice Smith) is a sweet, withdrawn owner of a New York City bookstore that has, among its treasures, a first edition of Jane Eyre. When Sandra (Briana Middleton), a doctoral student, enters the store and mentions Jane Eyre as the book that changed her life, she obviously stirs something in Tom and romance ensues.
Sandra has a ne’er-do-well brother, who owes some bad guys $350,000, and is surprised when Tom—the owner of a money-losing shop—offers to give her the dough. His father, he explains, is fabulously wealthy, a titan of finance. His relationship with Dad is strained by the latter’s disapproval of his bookish, non-aggressive personality and his utter lack of interest in business. As you might guess, this is all a scam. Twenty minutes into the film, Sandra disappears; Tom is heartbroken.
This is where the film’s overall structure begins to reveal itself. Sandra’s whole persona is a fraud. We leap back into the past: Sandra, a junkie on parole, is picked up by Max (Sebastian Stan), an upfront con man, who trains her to be exactly the woman Tom will be attracted to ... all to set up the $350K grift.
But then we leap back again to focus on Max, who shows up at the apartment of his well-to-do mom, Madeline (Julianne Moore). She’s dating a rich man (John Lithgow), and Max hits him up for another, even bigger, grift. But even that isn’t the end of the deceptions or the final goal of this succession of ultimate bad-faith players. And to say any more would ruin the fun. The film operates like a clockwork mechanism. If there were foul-ups or major implausibilities—as such trick plots often have—they eluded me.
The cast all deliver in spades. Moore, being by far the biggest star, gets top billing, though she doesn’t show up until nearly the halfway mark. She’s clearly having fun, especially with the character’s sexiness. (Lithgow, the other name actor, has a much smaller role and gets an “and with” credit.)
Stan, best known for playing the Winter Soldier in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just radiates sleaziness. He makes no attempt to enlist the audience’s sympathy. Smith’s Tom is the only wholly likeable character, though Middleton, despite Sandra’s conniving deceits, manages to remain sympathetic. You can readily understand why Tom would fall so hard for her, even without the bogus persona Max has created for her. She has a certain quality that will serve her well in less morally compromised roles.
While the construction and the succession of reversals and revelations are cleverly executed, this doesn’t rise to the level of the really great puzzle films—The Usual Suspects, The Last Of Sheila, or The Sting (to which it bears the closest resemblance). But it is wholly satisfying and keeps us on our toes until the final moments. Caron, a veteran music video and TV director (The Crown and Sherlock), makes an impressive fictional feature debut. Screenwriters Gatewood and Tanaka (who also penned David Gordon Green’s The Sitter) likewise show an inventiveness and steady hand in balancing their complex structure.
This is a film that paints a pretty negative picture of modern life ... or, at least, life in New York. Nearly everybody gets hustled, even as they are running their own hustles. In the end, the irony is that the sharpest of them all is the only one who isn’t a sharper.
(Sharper opens in limited release on February 10 before premiering on Apple TV+ on February 17.)