Review: Sharper Uses a Flexible Storytelling Structure and Strong Cast to Create a Gripping Neo-Noir
In a slight twist in the recent trend in movies to stick it to the rich, first-time director Benjamin Caron’s Sharper has nearly every character trying to stick it to the rich, and they end up sticking it to themselves and each other in the process. Not afraid to have fun with its storytelling structure, which actually features some of its chapters in reverse order, the movie begins simply enough with the lovely Sandra (Briana Middleton) walking into a small New York bookstore owned and operated by Tom (Justice Smith). He is intrigued by her instantly, but she declares that she’s single and happy to stay that way for the time being. But when he closes up for the day, she’s standing there waiting for him, and the pair go to dinner and into a bright future, or so we think.
It’s difficult to discuss Sharper without getting into spoiler territory almost immediately, but I’ll do my best to avoid it. Even still, you’ve been warned. Needless to say, the relationship doesn’t quite pan out, but worse than that, Tom believes he was tricked by Sandra into giving her a great deal of money, allegedly for her in-debt brother who is about to be killed by some thugs. All he knows is that she vanishes, and he begins a long, painful spiral almost immediately.
The story then jumps back several months, to a moment when Sandra meets a handsome con artist named Max (Sebastian Stan), who, sensing that she’d be a natural, decides he wants to teach her the ropes. Together, they work on a new identity for her, one that will appeal to the aforementioned Tom, right down to working his favorite book into their first meeting. Immediately, the questions begin to pile up, most of which are eventually answered by this very smart and crafty film. What is Max’s connection to Tom? Why does Max select Sandra?
When we enter the next jump-back chapter, we are now months earlier again, finding Max bursting into a party full of important people, with his mother Madeline (Julianne Moore) and her new, billionaire husband Richard (John Lithgow) hosting. Max is clearly the family’s black sheep, and he even tries to con Richard by bringing in a buddy to pretend he’s a police officer arresting Max, so that Richard will bribe the cop with a few thousand dollars. The con falls apart easily when Madeline recognizes her son’s old tricks. At this point, we find out what connection Tom has to all of this, and eventually, he hires a private investigator to uncover Sandra’s whereabouts so he can confront her. Probably not the best idea.
Operating just this side of a neo-noir mystery, Sharper is a pretty great puzzle-box thriller that eventually takes us to one of Manhattan’s richest players in Lithgow's Richard, as we watch characters try to outwit and outmaneuver each other for power and wealth, using emotional ties and greed to their advantage and convincing those around them to do things they normally wouldn’t. Some of the trickery doesn’t quite land, but most of it does, and it is fascinating to watch people get sucked into situations by someone who fulfills some missing part of their life. Maybe I’m just a more naturally suspicious person, but the film does make you question how susceptible you might be to such gentle ego-stroking. Max comes in guns blazing most of the time, but others are more subtle, which of course makes them more dangerous.
Working from a screenplay by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, director Caron is a veteran of prestige television (The Crown, Andor), but he brings a confident, elegant touch to Sharper, with a hint of something threatening and tragic. Whatever you want to call that combination, it’s note perfect for this material. Even with its few shortcomings, this is an impressive debut, anchored by gripping performances across the board.
The film is now streaming on Apple TV+.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.