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Sharper Is a Classy but Blunted Con Thriller

Sharper is a sleek thriller that plays its hand too early, delivering a bevy of twists that lack shock factor.

Sharper Review:

Sharper, a con thriller harkening back to the genre’s golden age of the 70s (à la The Sting and The Last of Sheila), is not only one of the classiest films in recent memory but also one of the most predictable and flavourless. Its greatest feat is not the deft, would-be shocking twists but the sheer heights of trashiness it achieves despite its visual, technical bravura.

One wouldn’t be wrong to assume Sharper is a gentle, even saccharine romance given its warm-hearted opening. Justice Smith’s Tom is a kind, if withdrawn, owner of a New York City bookstore who strikes an immediate connection with Sandra (Briana Middleton), a recent customer and doctoral student who is mesmerized by the establishment’s first edition of “Jane Eyre”. In the vein of that classic novel, the two muster the courage to ask each other out, delving straight into an intimate,frayed romance. Their relationship, underscored by a 70’s soundtrack of love and a fitting rom-com montage soon gives way to trouble.

Sharper movie review
Apple TV+

Sandra’s good-for-nothing brother is, in a bad way, owing some crooks $350,000. Much to her surprise Tom promptly offers to give her the cash, explaining he’s the son of a finance titan who is unfathomably wealthy. Even though their relationship is strained because of Tom’s gentle, bookish persona, he’s able to withdraw the lofty sum with ease. With said bag of dough in hand, Sandra is nowhere to be seen afterwards. Heartbroken, Tom quickly realizes it was all a scam.

This revelation unmasks the film’s overall, character-based structure. The second chapter, titled after Sandra leaps back into the past, detailing how her entire identity is a fraud, as she’s a junkie struggling to stay on the right side of the law. She’s picked up by the ruthlessly sinister Max (Sebastian Stan, both volatile and impressively cold), an unabashed con artist who trains her to be exactly the type of woman Tom would fall for— at least enough to execute that $350K swindle.

Though none of it is rendered the least bit shocking or startling, as the promising structure and intrigue are blunted by its sheer predictability. Writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka play their hand too early—and it starts right from the opening titles. Instead of commencing directly with the doomed romance, allowing it to play out naturally and unexpectedly careen towards tragedy, Sharper opts to tritely explain its namesake with an onscreen definition—someone “who lives by their wits”.

Sharper movie review
Apple TV+

As a result, the opening chapter lacks weight and—most importantly—suspense, as the audience knows where the relationship is headed from the get-go. While the opening definition might seem inconsequential, it has huge ramifications on the potency of each subsequent plot twist.

As the plot dives further into the past to focus on other characters like Max, who shows up at the regal apartment of his mother, Madeline (Julianne Moore, in the film’s greatest, pulpiest performance), who is dating a wealthy businessman (John Lithgow, channelling the most debonair of aristocrats), the continuing, bigger grifts fail to land with a wallop. The film’s constant need to one-up itself unsheathes its central artifice, leading to the only entity being cheated out of its fortune… being the film itself.  Instead of slyly traversing a labyrinth of fated errors and sleazy personas, what remains is a straightforward path with the odd, unremarkable detour sprinkled about.

Sharper movie review
Apple TV+

Yet, what renders the film watchable is Benjamin Caron’s confident direction and sleek technical design. The bold, voyeuristic framing is emboldened by the impeccable lighting. Colours slice through the compositions, with the harsh blues and blacks enveloping the characters and adding immense depth to the imagery. The exhilarating tracking shots, exquisite overheads, and bracing close-ups devilishly rest on each stare, pulsating with exactly the type of tension and seediness the writing fails to achieve.

Moreover, the pumping, eerie electronic score wonderfully underpins the cutthroat, ruthless urbanity that defines these characters’ every decision. Its soundscape is one that is equally seductive and sordid, but beautiful all the same.

Its elegant construction and muted screenplay give way to an exceptionally trashy conclusion, with the final confrontation being both too easy to telegraph and too stupid to believe. It’s a feat the film wasn’t aiming for but hits dead in the centre regardless. Sharper’s sleek, classy design is only home to a thriller that gives away its punchline before it finishes telling its crude joke. Though it’s undeniably easy on the eyes, it leaves much to be desired in every other department— especially its main draw.

– Prabhjot Bains

Written By

Prabhjot Bains is a Toronto-based film writer and critic who has structured his love of the medium around three indisputable truths- the 1970s were the best decade for American cinema, Tom Cruise is the greatest sprinter of all time, and you better not talk about fight club. His first and only love is cinema and he will jump at the chance to argue why his movie opinion is much better than yours. His film interests are diverse, as his love of Hollywood is only matched by his affinity for international cinema. You can reach Prabhjot on Instagram and Twitter @prabhjotbains96

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