‘Sharper’ Review: One Of The Classiest Thrillers In Ages

A uniformly terrific cast led by Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan and John Lithgow makes this neo-noir taut, sexy and so full of surprises you may need to see it twice.

John Lithgow (left) and Julianne Moore in ‘Sharper.’ jlevy | Observer

A total (but entertaining) contrivance from start to finish, the noir thriller Sharper is a monument to pretense without being pretentious, a puzzle without a pattern, an equation without an equal sign. This makes logic impossible and the search for solutions a waste of time. In the Random House Dictionary the word “sharper” is a rarely used noun defined as a “shrewd swindler.” That pretty much describes every character in the film as they plot to cheat, betray, and ruin each other with taut, sexy performances by a uniformly terrific cast including Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan and John Lithgow, slicing the air like newly sharpened steak knives under the streamlined direction of Benjamin Caron. Surprises heighten every scene and nothing is what it seems, including the smashing denouement. One of the classiest intellectual thrillers in ages.

SHARPER ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Benjamin Caron
Written by: Brian Gatewood, Alessandro Tanaka
Starring: Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, Briana Middleton, John Lithgow
Running time: 116 mins.

Initially told in reverse chronological order, the narrative begins where the movie ends, and the ending signals a new beginning. It shifts gears so many times that it keeps you guessing, and just when you think you’ve figured it out, the feverish style makes you wonder if what you saw really happened at all. Slowly unraveling in subheadings labeled after the names of the people who are either advancing the text or whose stories are just beginning, it’s a film that captivates like the kind of rich novel  you take to bed and never want to finish. 

“Tom,” the first chapter, lures you in without a pause as a pretty girl named Sandy (Briana Middleton) walks into an arty book shop and so enchants the owner (Justice Jesse Smith) with her charm and intelligence that he invites her to dinner. She’s studying for a PhD at NYU on defining radicalism in American literature. Fascinated, he hands her an original first edition of Jane Eyre, and falls. When their affair turns serious, he gives her $350,000 to save her brother’s life from drug dealers. She vanishes, leaving him broken-hearted and hell-bent on revenge.

Briana Middleton and Justice Smith in ‘Sharper.’ Apple TV+

In the next chapter, “Sandy,” it turns out she was a recovering addict who served time in jail, not a college student, and when a handsome guy at a bar saves her from a crooked female parole officer by selling the cop his Rolex watch, a bargain at $5,000, Sandy starts a new affair. The watch is a fake, so he gives Sandy a thousand for her “cut” and they become partners (and lovers). The guy at the bar is a supremely crafted con artist named Max, played by the supremely handsome Sebastian Stan. Max becomes Sandy’s mentor, teaching her the art of relieving wealthy men of their bank accounts. His gorgeous, glamorous mother Madeline (Julianne Moore, in one of her most uninhibited centerpiece roles), is so appalled by her son’s callous criminal behavior, that she throws him out, but in “Madeline,” the next chapter, we learn that she’s conducting a con of her own in a distinguished billionaire (John Lithgow) with a son who turns out to be Tom, the book store owner from the first scene, and Max is not Madeline’s son at all, but (get ready for it) her lover.  

As you begin to move the pieces along the board, a light slowly dawns, and you realize the movie is not always unfolding in reverse. Sometimes it’s just laying the groundwork for future  hustles. Madeline marries her billionaire and when he dies from a weak heart valve, she inherits $9.2 billion but it’s controlled by Tom, so to outsmart him she reconciles with flim-flam king Max, who is now conning Sandy, Tom and Madeline. It’s so complicated that this is a movie you might really need to see twice to figure out how all the pieces fit. Even now, in retrospect, I’m still asking myself questions about relationships, continuity, and character motivations. The only nagging furrow in my brow is that the ending, where everything and everyone’s fate is unveiled within the final five minutes, does some damage to the film’s overall plausibility, but not to the film’s abundant sense of style. The contrivances that propel Sharper are sometimes annoying but easily forgiven, because the screenplay, by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, simultaneously shocks and amuses, the actors are edgy and mesmerizing, and the fresh ideas are ceaseless, like a game of chess with human pieces making up their own rules, inciting a thrill a minute.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema. ‘Sharper’ Review: One Of The Classiest Thrillers In Ages