Blink and you’ll probably miss the best movie to have been released in the early doldrums of cinema in 2023.

While most moviegoers are watching bears on drugs or old women pining for football stars or tiny superheroes, Apple snuck a surprisingly engaging, yet underhanded crime thriller past unsuspecting cinephiles and dropped it on their AppleTV+ streaming service to little fanfare.

Helmed by Benjamin Caron – a longtime TV director making his feature film debut – Sharper is one of the more elaborate, stylish psychological thrillers to come out in several years, much more dynamic than last year’s Deep Water.

At the outset, viewers are introduced to Tom, a lonely bookstore owner who falls for a mysterious woman who’s more than meets the eye. As the film expands into the larger world of New York City high society, Sharper does its best to show that nothing is truly as it seems.

The film is wholistically an ensemble piece, segmented out in parts to focus on events from each of the major characters’ perspectives. The screenplay from writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka has significant bite and layered character development that gives the talented cast plenty of juicy dialogue with which to play and create.

Justice Smith delivers a career best turn as Tom, hiding his heart from the world until Sandra opens his mind to the possibilities life has to offer. There’s both naivety and emotional loss bubbling under the surface of Smith’s performance, and it creates a strong through line for audiences to stabilize themselves as the plot spins darker by the moment.

Rising star Briana Middleton has a difficult task as Sandra, having to play demure, decisive and broken, sometimes all at once over the course of her journey. Middleton is especially composed in her first major role, more than holding her own against seasoned character actors.

Oscar winner Julianne Moore feels somewhat out of place in the grander scheme of Sharper, at times feeling like she’s in a different movie than the rest of her co-stars, but her performance is so specific that it doesn’t particularly hurt the overall narrative.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Stan is particularly adept at subverting both his own filmography and audience expectations with a wry, slightly underhanded grin and stoic charm that radiates his Max’s ability to always be in control of a situation no matter how outrageous things might become.

For a first time feature director, Caron does show a heavy hand at times with cross-cutting edits that remind audiences that they are watching a young filmmaker, although the backing of an artistic studio like A24 and the deep pockets of Apple give Sharper a distinctive cinematic flair.

Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen maximizes the wide frame to create visually engaging scenes that highlight terrific locations and production design while keeping the actors and dialogue at the forefront.

If there’s anything that stands out as a fatal flaw in Sharper, it’s the film’s languishing pace that drags out individual scenes with unnecessary intros rather than getting into the heart of the moment. It’s clear that Caron is inspired by psychological thrillers of the past and wants to elongate the haunting musical score from composer Clint Mansell but trimming back Sharper by even 5-10 minutes could have truly elevated the overall narrative to a higher level.

While it certainly won’t be among the year’s top films, Sharper has enough intrigue, terrific production value and a solid ensemble cast that makes it something worth checking out at home.

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