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1 review, 23 user ratings

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Grifters, The
[] Buy posters from this movie
by MP Bartley

"That cheating feeling."
4 stars

Fittingly, one of the posters for The Grifters is a bit of a con. Depicting its three leads leaning against each other and smirking at the camera, it suggests an Ocean's 11-esque caper of essentially good-natured cons knocking off some rich, but evil, tycoon who deserves what is coming to him. But that is not The Grifters. The Grifters is a cold-hearted, malovelent thriller with teeth.

Roy (John Cusack) is a short-term con man. He doesn't plan ahead more than a few hours and makes his living hustling naive bartenders with cleverly swopped notes and drunken barflys who can't tell when the dice is loaded. He's in a - mainly physical - relationship with Myra (Annette Bening), a con woman who uses a combination of her considerable allure and wide-eyed innocent act to get exactly what she wants whether it be money, diamonds or a rent-free apartment. Completing the trio of grifters is Lily (Anjelica Huston), Roy's estranged mother. A front for laundering mob money through racetracks, she mainly works for the violent Bobo (Pat Hingle), but has her eye on a slice of the pie all for herself. Roy's successful career is attractive to both Myra and Lily - but the problem is not one of the grifters trusts any of the others.

Going in blind to Frears' film and you could be forgiven for constantly trying to second-guess the plot, when you realise that all three characters are con artists. Most films of this ilk revolve around a long con with someone unwittingly being set up as the patsy by the others in cahoots, but The Grifters doesn't necessarily follow this path. Roy realises how attractive a mark he is both to his ambitious girlfriend and grasping mother, but also knows a long con when he sees one and therefore views them both with equal suspicion. Instead of blindly setting up a long trap for Roy, the film is much more concerned with each character constantly trying to outsmart the others by throwing out a fresh, unexpected hand of twists throughout. The Grifters holds its cards pretty close to its chest from beginning to end, so it would be unfair of me to spoil those for anyone still unaware, but I'll merely say that Frears plays his hand superbly; never letting Roy, or us, be too sure as to who he should trust and when. There's a taut and troubling atmosphere to the film - don't expect many jokes in this film, there's too much violence and loathing bubbling beneath the surface of this world the characters operate in and Westlake's superb adaptation of Jim Thompson's keeps all the snappy dialogue and hard-bitten edge of the prose.

Updating the 60's novel to the 90's gives it a pulpy, neo-noir edge. The pastel colours and coiffured hairstyles of Myra and Lily place it as a contemporary piece, but Elmer Bernstein's superb music conjures up the mood of a previous era, and more than once there are nods to Polanski's Chinatown and the films of yesteryear. It's no coincidence that the woman pushing and pulling over Roy have similarities other than their interest in them - both have the swaying, hip-led hourglass figure, and both are unafraid to use their bodies to get exactly what they want.

There's not much between the three of them, but it's probably Bening's performance that stands out best of all. Kittenish, but with the smile of a shark, she demonstrates the coolly-played sexuality that not only tamed Warren Beatty in the real world, but shows why men are falling at her feet throughout the film. Huston, meanwhile, giving another unconscious reminder through her family name, to noirs of the past, resonates like an old-school dame that can scheme and fight with the best of them. She strides through the film as icy and imperious as her peroxide blonde hair do, softening her vulnerability with the underlying malice of someone prepared to do absolutely anything to survive.

Roy is the type of role, that Cusack always revels in. A morally liquid man, where you're unable to keep a check on what he's really thinking and planning. His O-shaped mouth always drooping open in some kind of sardonic response, and his eyes unreadable dark pools - he's one of the few people who can wear shades and make it look like a physical extension of themselves - Cusack has rarely dabbled in this tough-nut, sheerly unlikeable persona since. Perhaps Grosse Pointe Blank is the only one that's come close, but even then he was set up as a roguishly charming hitman - here, he's just a bastard, pure and simple and it's something he pulls so effortlessly, you wish he'd do it more often.

So, while it may be a fair point that there's actually not a lot going on in The Grifters besides no-one trusting each other and everyone second-guessing each other, that doesn't really matter so much when the characters are so finely-drawn and perfectly pitched as these. There's thick streak of bleak irony running through the film with Roy spending so much time tilting at windmills, trying to hold off both the attention of his mother and his lover, that he's completely unable to realise that his oft-repeated mantra in the film - "I make my own choices" - is a foolish boast at best, as both paint him into corners of their own deception. The fact that Lily is revealed early on as a young teenage mother who would pretend Roy was her younger brother only adds another layer of spitting, acrid and downright disturbing venom to the film.

The film that most readily comes to mind watching The Grifters is the Coens' Blood Simple, six years earlier. Frears shuffles his characters round in as cruelly casual a fashion as the Coens do, and both are films that essentially revolve around wholly unlikeable characters. But watching snakes hiss and bite at each other can sometimes be mesmerising in its nastiness.

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originally posted: 06/11/11 20:47:14
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User Comments

12/17/06 William Goss Well-acted, but rather cold, which is to be expected. Kinda sorta mildly overrated. 4 stars
5/11/06 dionwr Well done, but unpleasant 4 stars
5/05/06 Uri Lessing overrated 3 stars
5/02/06 PaulBryant Love Frears, but haven't grabbed this one yet 3 stars
5/02/06 Ryan_A Huston and Cusack are awesome; Bening was never better 5 stars
5/02/06 David Cornelius Great con flick 5 stars
5/02/06 William Goss Still haven't seen this. 4 stars
5/02/06 HBS-SH the dark horse comes back 5 stars
5/12/04 The More You Know a bunch of stylistic bs compromises first-rate performances. 3 stars
11/16/03 R.W. Welch Shoots for noir but tries a little too hard. A tad overdone. 3 stars
10/12/03 laura paterson Shocking yet addictive! great combo. 5 stars
4/07/03 Jack Sommersby Superior underworld pic than "Goodfellas". Flawlessly acted and directed with class. 4 stars
2/02/03 jack read the book, the movie has major problems 2 stars
10/29/02 Charles Tatum Totally better than anybody is letting on 5 stars
7/27/02 Soulis dark film, well made and well acted 4 stars
3/05/02 Marcia Lartz John Cusack vainly tries to play Wizard of Oz and give heart to this cesspool 2 stars
5/18/01 Bada Bing Crosby One of my all-time faves; everything is perfect in this one 5 stars
2/15/00 Hunley Very good latter day film noir. 4 stars
3/28/99 TJwills Very twisted and dark but till a hell of a perfomance form all three leads. 4 stars
11/25/98 Mr.Pink Three leads are outstanding! Kept me on the edge of my seat. 4 stars
11/24/98 little jerry Good,edgy film but a must see for Angelica Huston's blinder of a performance. 4 stars
11/18/98 Jules Waste of great talent. Didn't someone here say Cusack can do no wrong? Not! 2 stars
11/18/98 Lord Of The Dunce It may havve been because I saw it long ago, but this film confused the fuck outta me. 2 stars
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  02-Jul-1990 (R)


  02-Feb-1991 (M)

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