An ambitious con man, an elderly billionaire and a woman who swindles them both. So the scene is set for “Sharper,” A24’s latest release, which slid onto Apple TV+ on Feb. 17.
It’s the sort of compact, original film that feels wildly refreshing amid today’s corporate cinematic landscape. That wasn’t always the case. From the 1990s until the 2010s, the mid-budget thriller was a staple of the film industry. They were a solid financial bet for studios and a guaranteed good time for moviegoers, reliably starring a few prominent actors and delivering an exciting, neatly packaged story. In the past decade, the mid-budget thriller has disappeared from the film landscape — arguably for the worse. In a decade of film defined by franchises and reboots, standalone movies with fresh stories are desperately needed. “Sharper” delivers just that.
The film is elegant and restrained, carefully tracking one extensive con from its start in a Manhattan dive bar to its culmination in an Upper West Side penthouse. The film is split into chapters, each following a different one of the con’s key players.
Tom (Justice Smith, “The Get Down”) is the film’s first focus — and its first victim. He’s young and lonely and quickly falls for the equally benign Sandra (Briana Middleton, “The Inheritance”) when she happens across him in a bookstore. Their romance ends in disaster: Sandra convinces Tom to hand over a huge sum of cash and then disappears from his life overnight.
Then the film jumps to Sandra’s chapter. It strips back her sweet facade and reveals her as a transient junkie posing as a bookish grad student to get at Tom’s money. It’s an unexpected twist that sets the tone nicely for the rest of the film. From this point on, almost every new character’s true intentions are initially hidden. Each character’s actual identity is revealed in their designated chapter. The identities — the film’s most compelling features — are surprising and best left unspoiled.
This network of lies eventually leads to professional con artists Max (Sebastian Stan, “Fresh”) and Madeline (Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”). Madeline is a calculating, reserved matriarch who struggles to control Max and his impulsive playboy tendencies. They vie for control of a New York socialite’s large fortune while struggling to maintain their fabricated personalities. In an elite New York social scene, even the tiniest slip-up could reveal their impure intentions. “Sharper” eventually boils down to lies — can the cost of maintaining them ever outweigh the potential gain?
It’s an interesting enough question, though the film’s answer may strike some as lackluster. Luckily, “Sharper” isn’t meant to be particularly introspective. It is most valuable as an indication of a shifting film industry. The film comes after the anomalous release of several other mid-budget thrillers, all of which did quite well at the box office. Clearly, audiences are hungry for the sort of stories these films present. If it’s received positively, “Sharper” may very well indicate a return to more inspired filmmaking.
Daily Arts Writer Lola D’Onofrio can be reached at email@example.com.