Fox Mulder’s advice remains timeless: Trust no one. You better believe that’s true in Sharper, a new neo-noir thriller from Apple TV+. 

The film establishes a web of secrets, lies, and con artists trying to extort Manhattan billionaires. But ultimately it asks the age-old question: Who’s conning who?

Sharper stars Sebastian Stan, Briana Middleton, Justice Smith, Julianne Moore, and John Lithgow. It’s currently in theaters, and will premiere on Apple TV+ February 17.

Sharper has an interesting narrative structure, moving backwards, forwards, and sideways in time to unveil new layers of deception as we look at the story from the perspective of a different character. When we start out, we’re following Tom (Smith), the owner of a small independent bookstore. He meets and falls for Sandra (Middleton) – who ultimately uses their relationship to scam Tom out of $350k. But that’s just the beginning of this twisted tale.

Then, we flash back to see Sandra’s perspective; how she was recruited and trained by conman Max (Stan). Additional layers reveal Max’s connection to Madeline (Moore), Madeline’s connection to Richard (Lithgow), and Richard’s connection to Tom, bringing the whole affair full circle.

Briana Middleton and Justice Smith in Sharper

Structurally, it’s a good move for the film. It definitely adds a layer of intrigue to unravel this web of lies character by character. And thematically it works as well. Conning isn’t a one-and-done mission, it’s a lifestyle. An endless cycle of one-upmanship and striving for more, more, more. Are these characters good people? Almost across the board no. But we can invest in characters we hate just as much as those we love, given the right circumstances.

That said, to get truly invested in a story about scammers, we need to really believe they’re the best at what they do. We want to praise their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and manipulation, even while condemning how they use those skills to harm others. And that’s the main trouble with Sharper. It always feels a bit less clever than we’re expected to believe. 

Do these characters have a clear ability to manipulate others, and a history of doing so? Yes, absolutely. But they’re also pretty much all pulling the same con over and over again – which itself pretty much boils down to a slightly-modified honey trap. It’s an effective enough strategy on the characters themselves, but a less effective one for the audience watching. 

Ultimately, I felt that Sharper aimed to impress me with its wit, but never quite managed to do so. Its unique structure makes it a compelling enough watch, but it never seems to reach its full potential. It desperately wants to be clever enough to pull one over on the viewer, but I think audiences won’t be so easily had as its characters.

You can stream Sharper on Apple TV+ starting February 17.