The Grifters August 27, 2018
1 Hr., 50 Mins.
Lilly is Roy’s mother, and she comes back into his life, minutes into the film, after an eight-year absence. A grift gone wrong — which almost left Roy dead — has attracted her.
The Grifters, from 1990, is based on a 1963 novel by Jim Thompson, a writer known for hard-bitten crime lit more morose than what, say, Raymond Chandler was putting out at his peak. As opposed to David Mamet’s House of Games (1987), the quintessential con artist-centric thriller, The Grifters isn’t most electrified by the art of the deception, though we do admire how smart, and sneaky, its players are. It is more captivated by the relationships between its all-important trio, who more or less are dancing with one another in a breakneck, unpredictable triangular tango for 110 minutes.
The film is set in the present, yet it looks and feels retrophilic. The sets are primary-colored and lurid, like drawings out of a fossilized pulp magazine; the actresses amble around in neo-Marilyn bodycon dresses and wear their hair all leonine, like Rebecca Romijn did in 2002’s Femme Fatale; its male lead, ensnared in crime but sort of put off by it, reminds me of nondescript old Hollywood actors like Farley Granger or Robert Cummings.
It’s noir redux — a slick, beautifully decorated throwback of a psychological thriller. Yet it never feels like a cheap pastiche. Possessing the maturity of an Otto Preminger-directed film noir, it contains as much style as it does emotional and psychic nuance. It is not the flash that stimulates the most — though all the ornamentation’s inarguably pretty stimulating — but rather the intrinsically involuted characters, and the distorted bonds which tie them together.
There are few players on the periphery to interrupt the central dynamic, and Frears and his actors weave a cobweb of high tension. The movie can be funny, but it doesn’t permit repose or a cathartic exhale. We are forever waiting for a double-cross, an explosive act of violence, to undercut everything the film’s worked toward thus far.
A number of questions are posed. Will Roy and Lilly mend their fractured relationship, or will the latter betray her son as she did when he was still a teenager? Will Roy join Myra in the high-wire long con she’s planning? Is Myra as dangerous as she seems? And will Roy actually get out of the grifting game he seems to both enjoy and despise?
By and large, the movie hits unexpected notes, and Frears and his talented lackeys revel in these characters having to perennially be on their toes. The performances are masterful — somehow both sincere and disingenuous, on brand for shifty-eyed swindlers, I suppose — and the writing, by Donald E. Westlake, is acerbic, tough, comical, and, when need be, heartfelt. Its outro, dark and shocking, is just right — akin to everything else in this crackerjack, wonderful movie. A
hree con artists drive the action in The Grifters. Lilly (Anjelica Huston), an aloof, platinum-blonde veteran who works for a callous bookmaker (Pat Hingle); Roy (John Cusack), a fresh-faced newbie who prefers small, stakeless jobs — like holding up a $20 bill to pay for a martini, only to sneakily hand in $10 — here and there; and Myra (Annette Bening), a tigress who isn’t afraid of seducing, destroying, or the difficult-to-master long con. Roy and Myra are dating, though it isn’t until partway through the movie that both come to realize that their respective, unofficial professions are basally the same.