Film noir’s heyday may have been 60 years ago when the Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes of the world ruled the dime book stores and the big screen, but it’s clung to life with the same tenacity as the molls, private eyes, and hoods that populate its culture. My favorite film of 2010 remains the noir-influenced Winter’s Bone, and 2005’s Brick was one of the breakout indie hits of the aughts. There’s something about the seediness and moody atmosphere of noir that draws us in even when it’s a noir where the bad guys are the main characters. The lurid appeal of criminal activity scratches that itch in our baser instincts that we don’t want to admit is there in the first place. 1990’s multiple Oscar nominee The Grifters combines elements of noir with shades of Oedipus Rex. While it may not live entirely up to that compelling description, it’s still a dark (and surprisingly comic) descent into the world of matchstick men (and women).

Centered on three con artists, each trying to get the leg up on the other, The Grifters is a tale of family and betrayal. Roy (Being John Malkovich‘s John Cusack) is a small-time grifter, running minor-league cons to get by. His girlfriend, Myra Langtry (The Kids Are All Right‘s Annette Bening), used to be a “long con” swindler (think Sawyer on Lost), leading scams with her old boyfriend to milk tens of thousands of dollars out of rich oil men. Finally, you have Roy’s mother, Lilly (Choke‘s Anjelica Huston), who helps adjust the odds at horse races for the mob, all while skimming some money off for herself on the side. When Roy gets injured trying to scam a measly $15 off a bartender and the mob sends Lilly to California to cover their races, a mother and son who haven’t spoken in eight years are finally reunited only for the jealousy and greed of Myra to threaten to cause everyone’s world to come crashing around them.

Noir is all about the details. It’s about that sense of immersion you get because the world feels so lived in and so run down. More than many other genres, it’s about not having to suspend your disbelief because the script and direction have created enough of a real universe that these characters are inhabiting. In that regard, The Grifters is a success. Heavily reliant on con-man lingo and with a rapid-fire deliver that would make Aaron Sorkin proud, the dialogue pops off the screen all while subtly informing you about the world these grifters live in. There’s a brilliant moment where Lilly’s boss is about to torture her and he forces her to explain why insurance scammers would beat people with oranges in a towel. If it had been handled any other way, it would have seemed like unnecessary and artificial exposition (i.e. two characters would never say it) but the way its used to terrify Lilly makes for one of the film’s best scenes.

Unfortunately, noir also boils down to how great the crime is (because the film is either defined by the attempts of the protagonists to pull of the perfect crime or for the private eye to unfurl a seemingly unsolvable mystery), and in that respect, The Grifters falls a little short. The story plods along, and although the film teases you (and years of film noir conditioning subconsciously trains you) with the idea that there are going to be three different schemes working simultaneously in the movie (as in each person is trying to scheme the other two), that isn’t what happens. There isn’t an actual grand plot in the film, and it’s more of a character study of three desperate grifters whose lives suddenly spin madly out of control. Perhaps, the next time I watch this film, I’ll be able to appreciate it more for what it was, but during the film, I kept expecting a pick-up that never really arrived.

Movies like this and Being John Malkovich make me wonder what could have happened to John Cusack’s career if he hadn’t decided to go down the (admittedly more profitable) route of conventional rom-coms. Back when he was still making bold career decisions like playing a low-life con man with deep-seated mommy issues, he had the making of being a real star. I’m not saying his performance was Oscar-worthy (though Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston totally earned their nominations), but he has a thinking man’s star appeal, and he’s let it squander in lesser roles. I think Annette Bening is one of the greatest female actresses of her generation, but her performance in this film was confusing at first. She almost came off as too ditzy and bizarre, until you finally realize that it’s all an act. Bening’s ability to flip in and out of the various shades of Myra’s personality was a great indication of her future star power, and it’s easy to see why she’s received so many Academy Award nominations.

Of course, leave it to screen legend Anjelica Huston to steal the whole show. Along with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Lilly is one of the molls to end all molls. She’s tough as nails and at one point elbows a drunk in the throat who wouldn’t stop harassing her at a diner. She threatens to have a doctor killed if he isn’t able to save her son who she hadn’t even spoken to in eight years. She intimidates everyone around her, but underneath that tough edge, there’s a mother who (at least thinks she) cares about her son and is willing do what it takes to look after him. Yet, she’s also a fragile woman who’s aging, and when her world collapses, she lets it show. Anjelica Huston conveys all of this and more with her nuanced performance. I honestly can’t decide if she was better or Kathy Bates in Misery (who won that year’s Best Actress Oscar).

If you want a grand mystery or even a film noir with a plot that will leave you constantly wondering how it’s all going to turn out, The Grifters might not be for you. It’s got a compelling character study beating away at the core of the film, but The Grifters still always left me wanting a little bit more. With a world so magnificently created, it deserved to have a little more meaningful action populating the frames. Still, the excellent performances and eye for detail make The Grifters more than just your average crime story. For fans of the neo-noir revolution that has swept Hollywood the last twenty years, it’s a must see movie and for all fans of Anjelica Huston, it’s another check mark in her brilliant career.

Final Score: B

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