The general consensus is that M. Night Shyamalan is the king of plot twists in movies. It’s true because his twists are either so mind-blowing or so stupid that they’ll stick with you for a long time. But the thing is, he usually has that one insane reveal in his bag, which he springs on you during the third act, and if you’re familiar with his work, you will see it coming. Now, imagine one twist every 15-20 minutes of the movie’s runtime, and that’s an Abbas-Mustan movie for you. “Baazigar,” “Baadshah,” “Ajnabee,” “Humraaz,” “Aitraaz,” and “Race” are enjoyable to this day, despite knowing all the twists by heart, because of their unironic and unapologetic nature. However, ever since the directing duo fell off, I’ve been hoping for someone to come along and scratch that itch of watching a movie with a hundred twists. And I think that Apple TV+’s “Sharper” has done the job.
Directed by Benjamin Caron, “Sharper” follows Tom (Justice Smith), who works at a bookshop. There he meets Sandra (Briana Middleton), and the two fall in love almost instantly. Their honeymoon phase goes by pretty quickly, and then reality comes knocking at the door in the form of Sandra’s brother, Jason. He wants money from Sandra to pay off his massive debt. But since Sandra knows that Jason isn’t trustworthy, she’s afraid that he is going to take the money from her and run off. That’s when Tom reveals that he doesn’t just work at the bookshop. He actually owns it, which means that he has a lot of money lying around in his bank. When Sandra reveals that the amount is $350,000, Tom doesn’t flinch because that’s how rich he is, and he really wants to help Sandra. However, as soon as he hands over the money to her, she goes missing, thereby making it seem that she has either run away with the cash or been killed by the debt collectors. As the film goes back in time, we learn about the other players, i.e., Max (Sebastian Stan), Madeline (Julianne Moore), and Richard (John Lithgow).
What I’ve just described is the tip of the iceberg, which is made of the plot of “Sharper.” If the synopsis seems too simple or too vague, it’s only because I can’t go into further detail without spoiling the film. It’s possible that at around the 40-minute mark of the film, you’ll begin to think that I have overhyped it because everything that is unfolding is way too predictable. But that’s the result of the trick that Gatewood and Tanaka are trying to pull off. By spending a major chunk of the first act in the most cliche way possible, they lull you into this false sense of confidence that you know exactly how the plot is going to unfold. That’s why, when all of the characters start to reveal that they aren’t what you think they are, you begin to doubt everything that’s going on in the movie. However, since you’ve convinced yourself that you can notice clues and anticipate where the story is going, you’ll constantly try to get ahead of the plot and find yourself being fooled by the writers yet again. Even if you are the master of all the genres, you’ll always be only 50 percent sure that your predictions about the plot development are right. If that’s not the mark of a great crime thriller, I don’t know what is.
With all that said, on some level, Benjamin Caron is probably aware that the number of twists in this film is too damn high. That’s why he overcommits when it comes to the presentation of the film. The work done by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, editor Yan Miles, production designer Kevin Thompson, art director Deborah Jensen, costume designer Melissa Toth, the hair and make-up designers, and the VFX artists is truly pristine. They give every frame that takes place indoors such a sleek yet pulpy look that you can almost smell the poshness permeating through the screen. And I don’t exactly know what they’ve done with the city skyline, but it seems to be hand-painted or cutouts for some reason, and in a good way. Glenn Freemantle, the film’s sound designer and supervising sound editor, along with the rest of the sound department has aced it as well. There’s this fantastic ebb and flow in the ambient noises to clue us into the mental status of the character in any given scene. The background score by Clint Mansell is electrifying. In addition to all that, the overall pacing in “Sharper” is immaculate because Caron evidently believes in only having scenes that move the plot forward or flesh out a character instead of indulgently beating around the bush, thereby making it an engaging watch.
Much like the plot, I can’t go into detail about the performances in “Sharper” because it involves talking about the motivations behind certain creative decisions. But if you take a look at the cast—Justice Smith, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Moore, and John Lithgow—you know that you aren’t getting a bad performance out of them. I like the fact that Justice is slowly flexing how he’s capable of standing out in big-budget blockbusters like “Fallen Kingdom,” “Dominion,” “Detective Pikachu,” and “Dungeons and Dragons,” and also shining as a character like Tom. The other trend that I am ready to get behind is Sebastian playing antagonistic roles. He was fantastic in “Fresh” and “Pam and Tommy,” and he and his jawline really went to town to portray the devious Max. I’m a fan of Julianne Moore, and I’ve watched almost every single movie of hers. And it’s so truly satisfying to see her prove that she has so much more to offer by taking on a character that’s as sinister as Madeline. This is the first time I’m seeing Briana Middleton perform, and she’s truly spectacular. Her chemistry with Justice is palpable, and it’s because of her that the emotional core of the film feels so strong.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed “Sharper.” I went into it without watching the trailer or reading the plot synopsis. As mentioned before, somewhere around the halfway point of the film, I realized that I was essentially watching an Abbas-Mustan film and started to relish it even more. If you start to dig into what Caron and his team are trying to do on a thematic level, you’ll probably find traces of commentaries on classism, racism, systemic oppression, and moral boundaries. And that’ll hopefully elevate your viewing experience. But its primary focus is on keeping the audience on their toes with its twists, and it succeeded in doing exactly that. If you think that it’s not going to hold up on a rewatch, I suggest you replay it because you’ll notice a lot of visual details (one involving Sebastian Stan sitting right there in the foreground) and nuances in terms of the performances. So, yes, I highly recommend watching this neo-noir rom-con (because it’s a con job happening around a romantic story) and then doing an Abbas-Mustan marathon.