Film discussion

The Grifters (1990) – Film Swap Challenge

In our Film Swap Challenge series, our reviewers assign each other films to write about: films that one writer enjoys or values, and the other writer hasn’t seen – and which might be slightly out of their comfort zone! Here, Shaun Rodger is challenged to write about The Grifters by Leslie Byron Pitt.

Going into 1990’s The Grifters, directed by Stephen Frears, I didn’t really know what to expect. The box art, the little synopses I’d read, suggested I might be in for some sort of somewhat comedic caper movie. It even starts off a bit like that, light-hearted and upbeat, slick and sophisticated to a fault, revelling in the bright, airy locales of Southern California. But this bright opening doesn’t last. What I didn’t know going into it was that it was based on a book. A noir novel. Noir is many things, but light-hearted and comedic? Not so much.

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Even the brass-heavy soundtrack from Elmer Bernstein starts off upbeat and quirky, the darker aspects of the story only showing themselves later on with the piano going from light and upbeat to thunderous and menacing. It’s something of a bait and switch, this film, but – in a good way?

The three protagonists are small time hustler Roy Dillon (John Cusack), his estranged mother Lily (Anjelica Huston), and his girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening). Roy is content being small time while Myra tries to encourage him to work on a bigger job with her, not afraid of using any and all means to get what she wants, up to bribing her landlord with sex rather than paying the rent. She’s older then Roy, and definitely hungrier than he is for big things. The confident and self-assured Lily, meanwhile, is involved in fixing the odds at racetracks for her employer Bobo and views her son’s lack of ambition with disappointment.

One day, one of Roy’s cons goes a bit wrong and he’s hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. Only the timely arrival of Lily saves him from dying from internal bleeding. The two women meet while he’s in the hospital and take an immediate dislike to one another that escalates into animosity and then pure unabashed hatred as the film progresses. Events in the film cruise along quite merrily, only to be interspersed with acts of sudden violence, eventually culminating in an dark and explosive finale that leaves nobody unscathed.

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The performances are universally brilliant, everyone at the top of their game. Cusack is brilliant as Roy, a man who has always wanted to learn the grift, to be the smartest man in the room, but the truth is he doesn’t have the skill or the drive to truly exploit it and has settled for casual anonymity, making enough to get by and no more. Anjelica Huston as Lily is by turns supportive and dismissive of the son she had too late in life, that she has never really accepted. Though there are hints that their relationship could be, or has been, something more than just mother and son, their hate for each other is too deep rooted to be that simple.

There are shades of other things in their interactions but we’ll leave any Oedipal musings for you to decide on yourself. Annette Bening’s Myra, meanwhile, is the shark to Roy’s guppy. Older, sharper, and more willing to take risks than he is, it was almost inevitable that the knives would be out the moment Myra and Lily met. Yet at the same time Bening’s performance imbues Myra with a vulnerability that helps her earn the audience’s sympathy.

The darker scenes of the film, when they do arrive, are both brutal and mundane, and all the more troubling for it. There’s no hyperbole or hype, no dramatic build up; these are dangerous people who do bad things because that is the world they operate within. When a character is in danger, the audience truly believes that they are in danger, that the conversation could so easily end with their deaths. Hats off to both Stephen Frears for his direction and the cast for utterly selling it.

The Grifters is not the film I expected it to be, and I’m glad. It ended up being a real surprise for me, and my advice to anyone thinking of watching it would be to go in knowing as little about it as possible. I mean, read this review, but that’s it. No others. Don’t Google it. Don’t read the Wiki. Just watch it. You’ll thank me for it.

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