Movies about confidence-trickery put a new spin on the old rule about playing poker: look around the table and if you can’t see the chump … then it’s you. Watch a film about swindlers and you may well think you can see the person who’s being conned. But the film’s entire narrative procedure, and its pleasure, relies on you, the audience, repeatedly submitting to being played, while in theory you are the one with the wised-up crook’s-eye-view of what is going on.
Screenwriters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka have had big successes in the world of comedy and satire: now they have crafted this delectably enjoyable caper about fraudsters and Manhattan’s super-rich, a little like something by David Mamet – though without reaching the Mametian hard concrete floor of cynicism – or maybe Stephen Frears’s sleazy drama The Grifters, based on the novel by Jim Thompson. It’s got double-cross and triple-cross, and characters individually profiled in a daisy-chain of interrelated chapter-headed scenes. And if these feel like the usual suspects, well Gatewood and Tanaka finally treat us to an old-fashioned Keyser Söze “walk-away” reveal scene. British TV director Benjamin Caron makes a surefooted feature debut here, and his experience on programmes by illusionist Derren Brown may have qualified him for this.
The movie begins in the most sublimely innocent way: in a sleepy antiquarian New York bookstore. Gentle bibliophile Tom (Justice Smith), sits behind the counter reading Edgar Allan Poe, and looks up alertly when a (rare) customer comes in: this is the stylish twentysomething Sandra (Briana Middleton) who is after something by Zora Neale Hurston. They get to talking about the PhD she is working on in black feminist studies; he shyly asks her to dinner. One thing leads to another in the happiest of ways – but it seems both of them have unhappy families (the opening to Anna Karenina is repeatedly cited) and Sandra wants to know why they always go to her modest apartment and never to his. A terrible crisis brings the two lovers into traumatic contact with sinuous, predatory city slicker Max (Sebastian Stan), wealthy New York socialite Madeline (Julianne Moore) and her mega-rich husband Richard (John Lithgow).
Like the luxury goods that in one scene we see being stolen, the performances are out of the top drawer, and it is a great pleasure to see Moore on such good form: no one cries more needily, and with more nakedly sinister intent, than her. Stan is a smooth rodent of charlatanism; Middleton is a charmer; Lithgow has the wary poise of the fabulously wealthy and Smith is naturally a darker horse than you think. The storyline’s cheeky misdirections and trompe l’oeil give the movie a seductive kind of syncopation; and it’s sumptuously shot by Charlotte Bruus Christensen who gives it a tasty bit of Brian De Palma-style flashiness. And if in the final reel you can sort of guess what’s coming, or if you wonder a little bit about the plausibilities (how easy is it to get off a plane once you’ve been seated?) – well, that doesn’t stop this being a very smooth ride and a very classy piece of entertainment.
• Sharper is released on 10 February in US cinemas and globally on 17 February on Apple TV+.