Review: Slick, sassy, and ‘Sharper’ than most thrillers – this could be the making of Sebastian Stan

Image via A24

With directing stints on Sherlock, The Crown, and Andor under his belt, plus an Emmy win, director Benjamin Caron brings pedigree to this Apple original from the outset. Dissected into four interlinking stories which meld into one over the running time, Sharper is equal parts character piece and con artist action thriller. 

Written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, it features Julianne Moore (Dear Evan Hansen), Sebastian Stan (Fresh), and John Lithgow (The Old Man), in a setup which is reminiscent of The Grifters – a 90s thriller starring Anjelica Houston, John Cusack, and Melanie Griffiths. Where it elevates itself in comparison to the Stephen Frears staple is through the drip fed narrative and cool contemporary stylings.  

In an opening intended to wrong-foot audiences, Sandra (Briana Middleton) and Tom (Justice Smith) connect over a passion for literature. Surrounded by leather-bound books and oblivious to any customers, Tom barely looks up from the page when she first enters. Interrupted and inquisitive, he attempts some small talk as curiosity turns to attraction in a slow burn sequence.  

This delicate scene is an indication of the quality which runs throughout Sharper, as their conversation segues into a relationship montage, where feelings and physicality come together to establish trust. Dialogue is slick, atmosphere is everything, and ambience is off the charts as this brooding mood piece starts gaining momentum.  

As each story is unpacked the plot pieces fall into place, bouncing between Tom, Sandra, Max, and Madeline. Slowly showing the subtleties which connect these people, while allowing this group of top tier character actors an opportunity to let loose a little. Either by embracing the calm and calculated confidence trickster as personified through Max, or reveling in elements of elegant femme fatale as embodied by Madeline.  

Needless to say, billionaire Richard Hobbes (Lithgow) may be the patsy in all this, but his emotional side imbues him with an unexpected humanity, which in turn softens those more ruthless edges. Dealing with grief and his malcontent of a son over a recent emotional connection, this philanthropist and political power broker casts an essential shadow over proceedings as individual intentions are revealed.  

In terms of performance, it quickly becomes clear that Stan is having a ball as Max. Sporting a Rolex, driving a custom BMW, and oozing charisma – the actor garners empathy despite his overt arrogance and smooth talking narcissism. Middleton is equally enthralling as Sandra, too, embracing her chameleon like characteristics, allowing numerous personas to be adopted for personal gain.  

Elsewhere, Moore plays doting mother, sultry lover, and surrogate matriarch – as Sharper reveals the degree to which each character must live by their wits. That the puzzle pieces of this narrative continue to engage beyond the point where formula takes over, hinges on this cast continuing to deliver – which they do in spades.  

Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), who gets one of the more understated roles in this thriller, dials Tom right back emotionally when audiences first encounter him. Bringing a certain degree of Anthony Mackie to his persona, which is no bad thing, he remains the consistently cool-headed element in this complex equation. Dealing with the loss of a parent, betrayal by a lover, and then finally finding closure when the time is right.  

Although the plot twists come thick and fast in those latter stages, Sharper never loses its edge. Propelled along by a compelling set of performances shaped around an intriguing plot, Apple has produced a cutting edge contemporary thriller, with shades of old-fashioned woven into its fabric. Proving that this rom-com slash long con hybrid, might just birth a slew of copycat titles seeking to cash in on the original success.  

Beyond that, what Sharper does demonstrate categorically, is the leading man potential of Stan, when he gets his hands on decent material. Veering between truculent man child and ice-cold con artist Max is a mass of contradictions, as befits the tone of this film as a whole. Combined with the chemistry he exhibits opposite both Moore and Middleton, there is no denying that were Sebastian Stan to be chosen – then James Bond might well be within his wheelhouse.    

However, as that particular cinematic juggernaut gathers pace and picks another recipient, audiences will have to settle for his intriguing career choices that he juggles with his Marvel commitments, which continue to mark the actor out as one of the most interesting performers working today. Not only in this slick slice of cinematic sass, but beyond the conventions of genre into unknown territory. 

Review: Slick, sassy, and 'Sharper' than most thrillers - might this Apple original be the making of Sebastian Stan?

Piled high with plot twists and packed full of peerless performances, 'Sharper' brings together Sebastian Stan, Julianne Moore, and John Lithgow in a brooding long con thriller from Apple. Delivering something fresh from the streaming service, which continues to champion originality without limits.