Con artist movies may take a stroll over a narrative tightrope. These types of films are at risk of being more interested in the trick than the trickster because they depend heavily on shock and misdirection. Filmmakers draw themselves into corners by establishing stakes, but they get out of it by claiming it was always part of the plan. The same problem arises with time travel: no matter how often or how much trouble a character gets into, the direction and direction writing can cut corners by relying on a crucial plot device to solve everything. Trying to present incidents one way but then twisting them at the very last second can leave viewers feeling cheated. Few things are worse than a film that becomes too crafty for its benefit.
Naturally, this doesn’t always turn out to be the case. Some of the best con films, including Sting (1973) and House of Games (1987), are about more than just the rating. Character and dialogue are given equal attention, ensuring the dangers are genuine and the betrayal and cheats do not feel like a cop-out. The journey will feel like a different time-waster. Sharper contains a lot of this. The schemes aren’t the main draw. In reality, it might be argued that a lot of the assertions can be predicted early on. The big final twist is so clearly foreshadowed that we question if the real surprise will come if it doesn’t happen. Instead, director Benjamin Caron (in collaboration with writers Alessandro Tanaka and Brian Gatewood) concentrates on the characters. While the end result is a little unbalanced, the voyage is still smooth sailing.
The storyline is broken down into four parts, each going to follow a different character. Tom (Justice Smith) is a pleasant bookshop owner. Sandra (Briana Middleton) is a graduate student who falls in love with Tom. Madeline (Julianne Moore) is dating a businessman who happens to be a billionaire (John Lithgow). Madeline’s son, Max (Sebastian Stan), is a subversive young man who is not pleased with Madeline’s new love interest. These explanations of the characters only scratch the surface of their true personalities. The writing shifts back and forth between perspectives, sometimes even in parallel time. Personalities shift and wither away from the scene to the scene. It’s a pleasure to see how the developments and emotions shift based on who we follow at any given time.
The pacing suffers as a result of the narrative’s structure. But since priorities are established and re-established repeatedly, the film seems stuck in the first act. We can and should rewire ourselves to additional information as it arrives, but it won’t be until the second half that things begin to pick up. Caron and his team spend a significant amount of time arranging the pieces on the playing field. Audiences will be divided as to how they all fit together. The tonality is strangely moralistic in a story about people who make a living by lying.
The topic of “not stealing from an innocent” is repeated numerous times throughout the film. It is said that the characters shouldn’t feel guilty because the people they are stealing from are not innocent. Do we have to start believing these are truly good people who steal from the wealthy and give to the poor? That is highly unlikely. The plot unfolds in direct opposition to the title. Rather than being pointed and jabbing, the film is too easy to watch. It doesn’t conclude with an explosion as much as it does with a controlled descent.
Nonetheless, there’s a great deal to like here. Caron’s direction exudes a calm, separated air. The production design and art direction create an intensified sense of reality in skyscrapers, apartments, and shops as if everything was conceived from a magazine. The cinematography (Charlotte Bruus Christensen) burns brightly during the outdoor and night scenes, where pouty shadows and neon lights create a noir-like atmosphere. Clint Mansell’s synth score is a throwback that brings a feeling of nostalgia that we all love. The imagery is visually aesthetic to the point of overestimation when Max drives his car through downtown streets, with lights mirroring all around. It’s a front for characters skilled at controlling how others perceive them.
The performances are excellent all around. Each individual is tasked to portray a wide range of mental states and to meet expectations. Julianne Moore steals the show with the meaty role. She kills scenes with delight, being both playful and mischievous. Moore’s face will be captured in close-up as the gears in her brain turn. Watching her maneuver her way out of messy situations is a joy. Briana Middleton, a relative newcomer, doesn’t just hold her own against these well-known stars, but she actually leaves the biggest impression. Sandra must be intelligent and enticing, but also desperate and possibly insane at times. Middleton leads us to trust every word Sandra says, even when she might not be entirely honest. The future is unclear but Middleton may have established herself as a notable actress. I’m curious to see where she’ll take her abilities next. Hollywood, watch out for this one.
Score: 3 out of 5
Sharper is an enjoyable genre experiment. The film, like the caveats that pervade it, is much more entertaining at the moment when we allow the madness to wash over us. Further than that, the actual functioning parts might not be as persuasive. It’s like watching a magic act – it’s exciting as long as we don’t notice what’s happening behind the cloak.