‘Sharper’ Review: Julianne Moore and Sebastian Stan in a Simmering Thriller That Never Reaches Full Boil (2024)

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Sharper, an A24 and Apple TV+ psychological thriller starring Julianne Moore and Sebastian Stan, opens with a love story. A graduate student named Sandra (Briana Middleton) walks into a used bookstore in New York searching for a first edition copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The man working the counter, Tom (Justice Smith), is immediately smitten. He clumsily asks her on a date. She rejects him. Later that evening, Sandra returns to the store and timidly announces she’s changed her mind.

They fall into an easy romance: Mornings at the bookstore in Soho, afternoon walks in Washington Square Park, evenings spent cooking in Sandra’s apartment somewhere downtown. Tom and Sandra are a perfect match —a couple whose story would make for a great season of HBO’s Love Life. When Sandra vanishes, both Tom and the viewer are left to ask: What went wrong?

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The Bottom LineNever quite delivers on its promise.

Release date: Friday, Feb. 10 (Select theaters), Friday, Feb. 17 (Apple TV+)
Cast: Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, Briana Middleton, John Lithgow
Director: Benjamin Caron
Screenwriter: Brian Gatewood, Alessandro Tanaka
Rated R,1 hours 56 minutes

Helmed by Benjamin Caron and written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandra Tanaka (of the The Sitter), Sharper aspires to be a wily tale of deception and a nervy, nail-biting adventure. The film enhances the typical con-artist-planning-an-ultimate-heist template by repeatedly throwing every character’s motivation into question. Who can you trust? Who should you trust? Part of Sharper’s fun is in how it encourages close reading: Avert your gaze for a moment and you risk missing a clue. This is a film best experienced in a group setting, among friends, the kind of project that fosters conspiratorial thinking and could inspire multiple watches —if only it got out of its own way.

From the end of its first act, Sharper provokes burning questions and drums up anticipation. The cracks in Tom’s relationship with Sandra are faint, but they do exist if you look closely enough. Gatewood and Tanaka prey on the doubts sowed by seeming perfection to make us question the intimacy on display.

But their narrative —which broadens to include other characters — simmers for too long, taking viewers on a merry-go-round of tricks and turns that eventually start to echo one another. By the time the end credits roll, viewers have gathered evidence that the film doesn’t take advantage of and have all this energy with nowhere to go.

Where the plot disappoints, the characters sort of make up for it. Sharper revolves around five people, four of whom get a section of the film dedicated to them. These acts, introduced by simple title cards, advance the narrative and provide requisite backstory. The pseudo romantic drama that opened the film belongs to Tom, played by Smith, a star of HBO’s Generation. He embodies his character, a bookish nerd estranged from his billionaire father, with an awkward and winning charm. As Sandra, Middleton, a relative newcomer, adopts a similarly warm energy, which gives their chemistry a reliable foundation.

Smith and Middleton’s performances ignite our curiosity, but the entire ensemble sustains our interest. Stan plays Max, a seedy schemer who we quickly learn enlisted Sandra into a network of other con artists. He leans into, and has fun teasing and exploring, the layers of his character’s scumbag personality traits.

Moore, who appears later as Madeline, the girlfriend of billionaire Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow), is also an enjoyable presence here. She emphasizes her character’s competitive nature and greed but balances that with a less obviously ambitious side that turns her into an enigma. Sharper excitedly circles the questions of who she is and what her relationship to the other characters may be.

DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Fences, The Banker) gives each chapter a distinct enough visual language without losing the dusky atmosphere and (now overused) desaturated color palette that unites them. Editor Yan Miles works skillfully to create a cohesion that honors the film’s nonlinear narrative, and Clint Mansell’s score deepens our appreciation of each character’s ambiguous motivations.

These assured technical touches, along with the fine performances, give Sharper‘s puzzle an alluring sheen that pulls you in. Tom, Sandra, Max and Madeline relate to each other in different ways, and cobbling together their experiences with twists and turns helps maintain the film’s momentum up to a point. But the ultimate reveal — which unfurls over course of the last act —lacks bite. There’s something deflating about where Sharper ends up. You finish the movie wondering if you were the fool all along.

‘Sharper’ Review: Julianne Moore and Sebastian Stan  in a Simmering Thriller That Never Reaches Full Boil (2024)
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