In Sharper, an ensemble skirmish over a fortune in a recursive series of twists, wherein the layers of a stacking doll plot are lifted one piece at a time, each time finding something smaller and of lighter value underneath. What begins with a bookstore meet-cute between Tom (Justice Smith) and Sandra (Briana Middleton) is unpacked piece by piece. Sandra is running a scheme with Max (Sebastian Stan), to exploit Tom’s family fortune. Tom, however, is in cahoots with Madeline (Juliane Moore); then those two double-cross each other, and someone must get back at them, etc., etc. The puzzle movie, lightly guided by Benjamin Caron’s soft direction, is a see-through David Mamet plotline that holds a fistful of checks but has no bank to cash them in. It has ideas and high concepts for turns and twists, but there is no centering schema for the story to hook these diversions into.
What ends up happening is that we’re left with a pile of diversions searching for a story. There is something of a plot. An at-risk young woman meets a young man with a fortune but no love from his rich family. If you cannot eat the rich, marry them, then eat them. The film centers around these two actors and they drive the narrative. Julianne Moore is at the front of the poster but that is another small deception, it is hardly her character’s story. She is, in fact, a third anchor in the plot, and is dependent upon Sebastian Stan who plays her con-man son, or in their actual relationship her lover. Genuinely, the plot actually revolves around Justice Smith and Briana Middleton who are good and good together. When the plot has to leave them, which it often does to reveal the other moves on the chessboard, we often forget why we’re invested in this puzzle anyway.
The regular transitions, each character granted their own overlapping section of the film, do not quite cohere, as the editing struggles to sell the series of vignettes that establish each character’s true purpose in the story. Because their true purpose is often hidden, or a trick for the next segment, in a logical series of on-the-fly twists, the film ensures we cannot trust its characters, but then imagines we should stay involved with its progressive puzzling out of the small mystery. With each section trying to carve out a narrative for the central characters in the ensemble, it’s hard for us to build and maintain sympathies with any one of them.
We begin to think anything the characters do is motivated by some kind of trickery. When that always turns out to be true, the film’s structural engineering, which relies only on surprises, begins to flatline. We know that it will keep twisting. That the twists will reveal new twists. That each chapter will give another character the upper hand. After a few of these switches in power dynamics, we also can see who will win in the end. There is no real mystery as to how it all finishes in the end. You can probably imagine it already and either be absolutely right or have a better idea than the movie does.
As Rian Johnson’s Benoit Blanc films show us, it’s okay for a film’s logic not to be ahead of the audience. In the recent movie, it even opens up the puzzle as soon as the central game of the film is revealed. Glass Onion is a film that honors the audience by giving them too much and then finds new ways to surprise them through unpacking what is at the center of the driving mystery. For Sharper, there seems to be no center at all, there are only the requisite tricks and turns which do not require any story-centric device. There are twists because twists are what happens inside the film, not because there is something else they can reveal about the characters or tell us about how they all operate within the same incestuous money pit. There are just some characters, some surprising things happen, and finally, written into a corner, the film does what you think it will do.
When you get to the bottom of the stacking doll, you ought to have one solid doll that can no longer be unstacked. Watching Sharper, you unstack the last doll and then there is nothing else inside it. It was something at first, removing the big layers and seeing undeneath them, but now you’re here looking for a reason why the dolls unstack in the first place, but all you have is a pile of unstacked dolls and nothing else.