Caron: Sharper (2023)
Sharper may be the most quintessential original film to come out on Apple TV+ to date. Directed by Benjamin Caron, it’s a contemporary spin on The Grifters, and revolves around a succession of con artists, along with a con that keeps on expanding in ever more unusual and surprising directions. Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka’s screenplay unfolds as a series of vignettes that move backwards in time, return to the present, and then continue towards the future, a recursive structure that evokes scams within scams, an entire metonymic scammer-industrial complex. Nobody here is immune from being used, whether it’s Tom, a bookseller played by Justice Smith, Sandra, a recovering heroin addict played by Briana Middleton, Max, a professional scam artist, played by Sebastian Stan, Madeline, another scam artist, played by Julianne Moore, or Richard, a billionaire played by John Lithgow. The film opens with an explanation of the intricacies of a watch, and often recalls the narrative play of an older kind of grift film, offering us a kaleidoscope of clues that gradually come together.
While it’s hard to capture the full sweep of the plot in a short summary, most of the grifts in Sharper are about using cultural capital to access financial capital – or about cultural capital as a grift in and of itself. Like the Netflix series You, there’s a specific focus on the ways in which literary knowledge, an ability to invoke literature at just the right moments, and an air of readerliness in a digital ecology, can be used to jack into a new era of Big Surveillance. The film opens and concludes in a bookstore, and includes an early sequence in which Max instructs Sandra on how to present herself as upper-class. All of his strategies involve literature or literary deportment – he makes her read the New York Times from cover to cover, he tests her on quotes from Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, he tells her she can no longer refer to herself as “Sandy” and he fines her for cursing. Under this tutelage, Sandra is eventually able to pass as a PhD candidate, and woo Tom, the bookseller, into gifting her a first edition of Jane Eyre, which turns out to be the quilting-point of the entire narrative, the node for its various permutations of cultural and financial status.
Accessing and mastering this literary knowledge progressively turns New York into a series of austere patterns – visual beats that allow the various grifters to jack into a new aesthetic apprehension that quickly feels coterminous with the ambitions of the Apple TV+ platform itself. A throwaway opening title informs us that a “sharper” is someone who perpetuates a con, but that rationale quickly fades as each new grift draws the city into sharper and sharper focus, like Apple TV+ progressively differentiating itself from every other streamer on the market. Max trains Sandra in literary capital against a montage sequence of this sharpening New York, before taking her downtown for martinis for her final rite of passage, as an ethereal synth score and granular drone shots coalesce around her ascent in an elevator through the spaceship-styled no-place of the Marriott Marquis, the East Coast echo of the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles. If, as Fredric Jameson argued, this Bunker Hill monolith was the apex of classic postmodern style, then the Marquis turns into something beyond the postmodern in Caron’s vision – a departure from earthbound architecture as we know it for a realm of pure aestheticized data, a neo-Hitchcockian object sentience that culminates with a throwback to Vertigo against the neon efflorescence that percolates up from Times Square.
Between these two poles – the literary and the post-human – Sharper evokes an Apple TV+ platform that wants to parlay the literature of an older mode of quality television (or a quality television that now feels as antiquated as literature) into a more contemporary vision. Classical and futuristic at the same time, this aesthetic finds its apotheosis in the next structure we see, and the apex of the film’s vision of New York – an enormous apartment, owned by Richard, the billionaire played by Lithgow, that looks out on an otherworldly sun that aligns skyscrapers into the same arcane atavism of Tyrell’s office window in Blade Runner. Here, the accumulation of grift data finds its last possible expression as a cityscape, and thereafter manifests itself as a more abstract aesthetics of flow, whether in the dance sequence that concludes the final scam, the Michael Nyman-esque procession that follows, or the tipping-point at which the structure of the film doubles back and folds in upon itself.
The result is a vision of the hyper-elite future in aesthetic terms – as a point of entry to this space of flows, but also a heightened sensitivity to the literary sensibility that fulfilled the same function in centuries past. Literature and data fuse, and reconfigure the heist one last time so that we’re faced with an unassailably wealthy family on the one hand, and the con artists’ various efforts to form points of entry into it on the other. While Big Literature and Big Data seem opposed in the early stages of Sharper, or at least exist in an uneasy alliance, they’re fused into a seamless cultural capital by the closing stages, which see a subsidiary grift crew organised by Richard’s heir – a crew who plan their own con in the bookshop that opened the narrative – reassimilate all of the money they lost over the course of the film. This con is just a continuation of Richard’s capital after his death, a reminder that billionaires have absorbed every con that might disseminate their funds, because the sheer process of becoming a billionaire is, as the film would have it, the biggest con that can be played. And so Sharper ends with this billionaire-con team victorious, reclaiming their money and claiming literature as their own, even as they leave the film with an aversion to their project, and to the Apple TV+ platform, that it can only express negatively, and as it were unconsciously, with a slow pan back through the bookstore in search of a final twist that isn’t permitted to arrive.
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