Film Review – Sharper
Movies involving con artists must walk a narrative tightrope. Because they rely on surprise and misdirection, they run the risk of being more about the trick than the trickster. Filmmakers paint themselves into a corner by establishing stakes, but work out of it by saying that it was part of the plan all along. The same issue pops up with time travel – no matter how much trouble a character gets into, the writing and direction can cut corners by utilizing the central gimmick as an answer for everything. Presenting events one way and then twisting things at the last second can often make us feel cheated as viewers. Few things are worse than a movie getting too clever for its own good.
Of course, this is not always the case. The best con movies – House of Games (1987), Matchstick Men (2003), The Sting (1973), etc. – are not just about the score. Equal effort is put into character and dialogue, so that the risks are legitimate and the double crosses don’t feel like cop outs. That way, the journey doesn’t feel like a waste of time. Sharper (2023) has a lot of this going on. The schemes are not the main attraction. In fact, it could be argued that much of the revelations can be guessed early on. The big ending twist is foreshadowed so blatantly that we wonder if the real surprise is if it doesn’t happen. Instead, director Benjamin Caron (with writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka) place emphasis on the characters. While the result is a bit uneven, the journey is still a slick one.
The plot is broken into four different sections, each one following a separate character. Tom (Justice Smith) is a mild-mannered bookshop keeper. Sandra (Briana Middleton) is a grad student who develops feelings for Tom. Madeline (Julianne Moore) is in a relationship with a billionaire businessman (John Lithgow). Her son, Max (Sebastian Stan) has a rebellious spirit and doesn’t take too kindly to Madeline’s new flame. These descriptions only touch the surface of these four people. The writing weaves between each perspective, cutting back and forth and sometimes in parallel time. Personalities change and deteriorate from one scene to the next. Part of the fun is seeing how the dynamics and mood will shift depending on who we are following at any time.
Because of the way the narrative is structured, the pacing takes a hit. Because agendas are established and re-established over and over, the film feels like it is stuck in the first act. We must reconfigure ourselves to new information as it comes, and it is not until the back half where things really start to get going. Caron and his production spend a lot of time setting the pieces on the board. How they all fit will divide audiences. In a story where people make a career out of lying, the tone is oddly moralistic. “Don’t steal from an innocent,” it’s explained, “that way you don’t feel bad about it.” Are we to believe that these are upstanding citizens who steal from the rich and give to the poor? That’s unlikely. The narrative plays out in contrast to its title. Instead of being pointed and biting, the film goes down a little too smoothly. It doesn’t so much end with a bang as opposed to a soft landing.
Still, there’s a lot to like here. Caron’s direction has a cool, detached atmosphere. The production design and art direction fill high rises, apartments, and shops with a heightened sense of reality, as though everything was born out of a magazine. The cinematography (Charlotte Bruus Christensen) shines during night scenes, where moody shadows and neon lights give off a noir-like aesthetic. Clint Mansell’s synth score is a throwback – we could easily see this taking place in the world of Miami Vice or Thief (1981). When Max drives his car down city streets, with lights reflecting all around, the imagery is stylistic to the point of exaggeration. It’s a façade for characters whose skill is in manipulating how others see them.
The performances all around are well done. Each participant is asked to play a wide range of emotional states and meet the expectations accordingly. Julianne Moore stands out with the meatiest role. She chews scenes with glee, being playful and mischievous at the same time. The camera will hold on Moore in closeup, watching her face as the gears spin in her head. Watching her work her way in and out of sticky situations is a joy. The big surprise comes from relative newcomer Briana Middleton, who not only holds her own against veteran actors, but leaves the biggest impression. Sandra must be smart and alluring, but in certain instances desperate to even unhinged. Middleton makes us believe every second of the performance, even when Sandra may not be telling the whole truth. Time will tell, but Middleton may have introduced herself as an actor of significant note. I look forward to seeing where she will take her talents next.
Sharper is a fun genre exercise. Like the cons that pervade it, the film is more enjoyable in the moment, when we let the silliness wash over us. Once we look beyond that, the actual working parts may not be as convincing. It’s like watching a magic act unfold – it’s entertaining as long as we don’t pay attention to what’s going on behind the curtain.