Sharper review – New York-set psychological thriller is unoriginally blunt
Despite a stacked cast and an intriguing set-up, Benjamin Caron’s twisty film eventually gets caught in its own web of cons
Sharper begins with the ominous tick of a Swiss-made clock. Is the second hand counting up or down to something, we ask? The dichotomy of perspective, and the moldability of the mind, lies at the core of this brash psychological thriller from filmmaker Benjamin Caron, in which he tasks himself with an abundance of directorial sleight of hand flourishes. As Sharper tries hard to keep you second-guessing, though, the film’s initial razor-sharp edge is ground down beyond repair, leaving it dulled and blunt.
Introductions of bookish Tom (Justice Smith) and Jane Eyre-loving, Italian-speaking PhD student Sandra (Briana Middleton) resemble an New York-based rom-com meet-cute. But nothing in this con-man drama is quite as it seems. Sandra, it turns out, is Sandy, a woman on parole with three strikes against her name. Enter a gum-chewing, sleek-haired Sebastian Stan as Max, as though rehashing his bloodthirsty character in Fresh – but this time he’s a puppet master out for cold, hard cash instead of limbs. He gives Sandy a roof over her head and a purpose: to lure their mark into a trap that looks like love.
Brazen with subversion, Sharper swindles itself with lamented dialogue and hollow characters. Max and Sandy prove to be as fleeting as Tom and Sandra. As soon as we're embedded with these pairs, we’re suddenly swept away to another side of the city and into a different penthouse suite. At the point of intertwining narrative threads, the introductions of Madeline (Julianne Moore) and her billionaire beau Richard (John Lithgow) are frustratingly opaque in intention – the tells are far too obvious. It keeps you on your toes, sure, but it’ll leave you wishing Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka’s script just took a moment to breathe.
Also, for a big city drama, there’s a real lack of grittiness underscoring elevated shots of skyscrapers and boardrooms. The film is all about outward appearances and yet Sharper will have you craving some jagged edges to snag this tale in a different direction. The film’s shining centrepiece is not a sleek sequence but a needle-drop moment of Stan and Moore dancing to Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry.” Such indulgences never feel earned. The pair are strong, but newcomer Briana Middleton really glitters amid the city’s glossy shine, fluctuating between two people who share the same body with uncanny stealth.
Title cards divide the film into character-focused chapters, with an aim of peeling back new perspectives on the same players. It’s a nifty card trick, at first, but eventually it’s laborious and turns exposition into a clumsily chronological affair. Sharper initially bears the flashy sheen of a designer watch – but look closely and you may notice it’s not an original after all.
Sharper is released on Apple TV+ on February 17.Where to watch