“He was so crooked he could eat soup with a corkscrew”
My first Stephen Frears film was High Fidelity and I loved it. A couple years later came Dirty Pretty Things and my reaction was the same. Here was a director I must keep tabs on as well as peer back towards everything pre-2000 to make sure I knew which titles to search out. The one that popped out most—despite still taking me twelve years to finally watch it—was The Grifters. Its pedigree was impeccable with a pulpy noir style written by Donald E. Westlake (penname Richard Stark) from a Jim Thompson novel starring John Cusack in the prime of his career alongside Oscar-nominated turns from Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening. I couldn’t help but build it up in my mind as a sure-fire masterpiece.
Much to my chagrin, The Grifters is at best half a great film mired by a serviceable start. Perhaps it’s merely become dated in the twenty-five years since its release, but the beginning had me scratching my head. It’s borderline comedic as we’re introduced to Lilly (Huston), Roy (Cusack), and Myra (Bening) engaged in their own cons completely removed from the others. They simultaneously sashay from cars to venues—racetrack, Bennigan’s, and jeweler respectively—the screen divided into thirds so each can turn and face the camera for a glamour shot smile. They do their thing with confidence, returning home to ultimately reveal their inevitable relationships with each other. And then the event that most resembles a con arrives without a shred of irony in its absolute veracity.
Roy falls ill, mortally so. His girlfriend Myra doesn’t care much, acknowledging the bruise on his stomach without letting it affect her libido. If not for a serendipitous visit by his mother (Lilly)—who never goes to California when working for mob boss Bobo (Pat Hingle) and hasn’t seen her son since he ran away eight years prior at seventeen—he’d be dead. The way this weird family reunion occurs is pure hard-boiled cinema, but feels too artificial. I waited for a reveal showing they’ve been working together for years, currently cheating the hospital or maybe Myra for a score. In reality Roy has a legitimate, deep-seeded and angry indifference towards his mother while Lily’s disappointed to learn he’s grifting and attached to what looks like a prostitute.
The visit conjures enough emotions for Lilly to forget her duty as a stooge bettor (putting money on horses right before the bell so the long-shots aren’t so detrimental to her employer if one happens to win) and Roy to covet an escape. One thing leads to another and suddenly everyone’s cards are on the table face-up. The women need Roy’s help yet he refuses because of the grifting code taught to him by father figure Mintz (Eddie Jones). Never take on a partner and never engage in a long con. This morsel of advice comes via a delusion, Mintz an intriguing character I wish Frears and company utilized more. This stalwart dedication makes Roy the most interesting of the trio and yet he does the absolute least.
He should be the main focus, a steadying hand in a world of unpredictability. Hearing Mintz lay down the law and explain how there are enough patsies to steal from without ever having to go up against someone of equal talent foreshadows what’s to come, but not how you imagine. Rather than prove the smartest in the room, Roy is merely the most cautious. He’s found success and doesn’t want to ruin a good thing no matter what the others are promising. This pushes him to the background, a solid pillar for the others to come back to when the going gets rough. He’s rendered forgettable as we learn the danger of Lilly’s precarious situation and the lengths to which Myra will go to get back on top.
The rising and falling of overwrought emotions I thought were faked due to the contrived way in which the three leads initially cross paths is replaced by a welcome tone of severity. Stakes ratchet up to levels of extreme violence and heartbreak as Bobo shows his volatility in answer to Lilly’s mistake and Myra explains the tortured end to her previous con artist beau Cole (J.T. Walsh). The loose camaraderie based on lies becomes a tightening vice-grip as the women start to make their moves underneath Roy’s nose. Tough love and murder follow, effective scenes of covert actions shrouded in darkness leading to a necessary mother-son blow-up to prove their priorities and similarities. Its end resembles a perfectly bittersweet Greek tragedy, this life always one of unavoidable solitude.
Only when this edge is introduced does The Grifters become the film I had anticipated. The despair etched on Huston’s face when her Lilly’s calm, cool confidence is shattered at the hands of her boss erases the hokey, unearned “Mom” persona unleashed on Roy. The excitement glowing off Bening when her Myra’s distracted and bored sexpot sees an opportunity to use her looks for big scores makes you understand why Roy spends his time with someone we assumed was a two-bit whore. I just wish we’d have seen glimpses of these complex characters earlier; a show of power to put them on equal footing with Cusack’s methodically conservative foil. This evolution proves them worthy of the individual award notice, but comes too late to fully save the whole.
The entire first half becomes a vehicle to provide Roy’s mommy issues so Lilly can feel unwanted and Myra can twist her knife while attempting to get her way. Nothing is surprising—the plot’s economical progression supplies everything we need to accept each subsequent step without question—but it feels underwhelming when we’re unsure of the darkness to come. It’s as though Frears crafted two separate movies, smooshing them together without realizing they were so different in tone. We’re shown a romp and then forced into the nightmarish underbelly of a life wherein keeping one eye open is critical without warning. The fun and games screech to a halt and yet I still kept seeing everything through a comedic lens. Off-balance and unsure, I could never fully invest.