The Grifters, Stephen Frears' 1990 thriller, combines two of my favourite actresses and one of my favourite film genres. Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston are sublime in this terrific noir that was produced by Martin Scorsese. The Grifters is the kind of film that leaves you guessing and challenges you to pay attention. The three main characters, played by Bening, Huston and John Cusack, are three con artists (grifters) that spend the whole film trying to screw over each other. Stephen Frears is an accomplished and talented director who may be most widely known for his 1988 adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons and 2006's The Queen. Film noir is a difficult genre with its dark themes and imagery, but Frears helms The Grifters with a competent and steady vision. While a noir is often remembered for its style, its success is often rooted in acting. Anjelica Huston was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards (losing to Kathy Bates in Misery), but it is Annette Bening who completely awed me in one of her first major film roles (she too was nominated for an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress, losing to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost). The Grifters is a dark and seductive noir with finely-tuned performances from its main cast. It is a film that still leaves me guessing and conjecturing after seeing it again.
Roy Dillon (Cusack) is a small-time grifter living in Los Angeles. He spends most of his time cheating people out of small amount of money. After suffering a near-fatal injury after a con gone wrong, he finds himself in the hospital. He is less than thrilled to see his mother Lilly (Huston) by his side. Lilly works for a bookmaker named Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle) and her job is to bet large amounts of money to lower odds at the racetrack. She is unimpressed by Roy's older girlfriend Myra (Bening). Myra uses her beauty and her body to get men to get what she wants. Lilly was supposed to be in La Jolla for work and as a result of her stop in Los Angeles she finds herself in major trouble with Bobo. Although Lilly and Roy have not seen each other in a number of years, she tries to convince him to quit grifting. After being released from the hospital, Roy and Myra take a weekend trip to La Jolla. Myra catches him conning a group of young sailors and reveals that she is also a grifter and is looking for a new partner in a long-con operation. Roy chooses not to join Myra and Myra believes it is due to his mother's influence. Myra, dubious of Lilly's real intentions, discovers that Lilly has been stealing money from Bobo and concocts her own plan of revenge.
Part of the brilliance of The Grifters is the awkward and inappropriate relationship between Roy and Lilly. The two live their lives conning other people and go long periods without seeing each other. Lilly was fourteen when Roy was born, which is roughly the age difference between John Cusack and Anjelica Huston. Their borderline incestuous relationship adds to dark complexity of the film. The star of the film, for me, is Annette Bening. She brings such incredible energy to Myra, the oversexed and underestimated vamp. On the surface Myra seems uneducated and dimwitted, but Bening has made Myra a woman who understands her greatest assets and uses them accordingly. The Grifters unfolds in a calculated and often surprising way. The tricks of the film are unexpected and the viewer is being conned as the characters trick each other. John Cusack is our sympathetic hero caught in a web between two very powerful women. Stephen Frears has crafted a beautifully styled noir, based on a 1963 pulp fiction novel by Jim Thompson, and as an assured and confident director he allows his actors to thrive. Stephen Frears exploits the film noir genre to expertly weave an unpredictable story which makes The Grifters a great crime drama with superb performances from its three lead actors.
My rating: 4 stars out of 4.