Seeing the nifty grifter drama Sharper reminded me how rarely we encounter this kind of clever cat-and-mouse game that might fall into the noirish genre but really relies on diving into a world filled with characters who reveal slices of their lives that keep changing moment to moment. It is the kind of movie I find enormously difficult to review because its ultimate success for a viewer is just watching it unfold, beat by beat, never quite knowing exactly where it is heading but still glued to the screen to find out.
Almost any kind of real detail would require spoiler alerts, so just trust me. With an exceptional ensemble of actors who expertly avoid giving away the ever-changing actions of their slippery characters, a clever and precise script by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka and right-on-the-money direction from Benjamin Caron (The Crown) in a triumphant feature debut, Sharper reminds you how much we have missed from a mid-range adult entertainment when it gets it all right.
The best advice I have is to just go with it, even if the film you think is being set up from the first sequences is not the one they have made. Right off we meet Tom (Justice Smith), a simple bookstore clerk in NYC who meets a customer (Briana Middleton) he clearly likes as he shows off a first edition copy of Jane Eyre and helps her find the perfect gift for her boss. Another chance encounter later that day leads to dinner and a budding romance. Soon the tenor of their new relationship changes a bit as she describes some financial issues overwhelming her at the moment. When he volunteers to bail her out, she resists, but ultimately agrees to a substantial loan.
Written in a non-linear style and separated by chapters identified on the screen with character’s names, the focus keeps changing as we see events unfold, and eventually intertwine, as the story takes twists and turns and then twists right back again. We meet Max (Sebastian Stan), a hyper-successful grifter who has a knack for making the big score. Under his tutelage we meet Sandra (Middleton), a broke, drug-addicted young woman out on parole who, in Pygmalion-like fashion, he turns into someone else entirely as he enlists her in his illicit grifts. That all eventually leads to his own family connections, with his mother (Julianne Moore) now involved in a loving relationship with Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow), a billionaire hedge fund executive who he instantly insults as “old,” much to her disgust.
It is these five characters who, in their own way, might not be whom they seem to be, at least on first glance. All, except perhaps Hobbes, are dealing in one kind of con or another in ways best left unsaid here. The title of the film can give us a clue, if you know who a “sharper” is. Google it. But just when you have an “aha!” moment, these filmmakers have other twists up their sleeves.
Big props to this great cast. Moore, producing for the first time, knows a good thing when she reads it and immediately latched on to the script, which was on the 2020 Black List of great unproduced screenplays. As always, she dives into a fascinating character and gives her extra dimension. Stan, playing the unhinged Max, follows up outrageous turns in Pam & Tommy and another devious character in Fresh with a performance that rocks the room. Smith and Middleton manage to take each of their characters to multiple levels, with the latter a true star in the making based on what she does here. Lithgow is terrific — perfectly cast and again at the top of his game.
New York City itself is an important cast member on its own, and for that a big shout-out to cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, production designer Kevin Thompson and editor Yan Miles. Clint Mansell’s cool score hits all the right notes, as does the soundtrack full of songs that capture the ever-shifting narratives.
Producers are Erik Feig and Jessica Switch for Bert Freundlich, along with Moore, Gatewood and Tanaka. Picturestart, FortySixty and G&T Productions are the companies involved in bringing this latest collaboration with A24 and Apple Original Films to the screen. It premieres today in London , opens in a limited theatrical break Friday and begins streaming February 17 on Apple TV+ .
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