Criterion Prediction #116: The Grifters, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Grifters
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Angelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening, Stephen Tobolowsky, Jan Munroe
Synopsis: Roy (Cusack) is a grifter and his world of minor hustling with his volatile girlfriend Myra (Bening) is turned upside down when his estranged mother Lily (Huston), a career criminal, reenters his life.
Critique: Stephen Frears knows how to navigate the dimensions of a genre and that’s what makes him such a proficient director. It’s the reason why The Grifters is one of his (many) superior titles. Like Curtis Hanson, Frears has the insight to rearrange the mechanics of classic film noir and contemporize it in a way that evokes the spirit of its forebears but gives us a little taste of something extra.
The Hayes code is dissolved. Sex isn’t implied, violence can be graphic, words can be dirty, and you can play rough. Sure, you lose the rapid-fire dialogue, the baroque emotional turns, gender stereotypes (mostly) and period flavor but it’s all a part of growing up.
Back to Frears, a director with an obvious affection for the genre (he’s been flirting with it since the early seventies) and with a trio of brilliantly realized characters brought to life by a stroke of impeccable casting. Angelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annette Bening become a tightly wound triangulation of fire who hit dead center in hammering in the thematic bullet points of the narrative, Cusack’s Roy is the epitome of a gen-x swindler. Roy is a slick, crisp, smooth talker who doesn’t have the long-con ambition, he’s content to hustle a bartender for a few bucks, swipe some quarters from a mark, stash a sizeable, but modest fortune in his living room. In the vernacular of the films wheelhouse, it’s all SOP. But Roy is also the product of the modern era where the nuclear family is vaporized and he has a chip on his shoulder regarding his absentee mother from the old guard. Her character and Huston’s metatextual presence enhance that vibe of the old school. Huston brings this quietly articulate sense of power, she’s not so much out of her time but is an experienced hand in this tangential gambling underworld in which she operates. The third and most dangerous player in this Freudian ménage à trois is Annette Bening’s Myra. There’s a grounded semblance in the mechanics of Lily and Roy’s chicanery but Myra’s criminal past has the hyperbolic dressing of an adrenaline junkie. In tuneful junction with her persona, it fits. There isn’t a subtle bone in Myra’s body, and Bening plays the character with zestful energy and sociopathic zeal, at times she is over sexualized but, the finale resolves what could have been a bad taste.
The Grifters is the best when it’s changing the format without devolving into contrarian mannerism. Schemes and heists occur in flashbacks, the action is indirect and unexpected, and there is planning and talk of running cons but they don’t materialize. There’s an abundance of sexuality, instead of the defaulting toward the dated femme fatale/forbidden fruit adage the film leaves eroticism and tends toward oedipal overtones. And in this volley of tonal sculpting, The Grifters comes to a head, and the go-to resolution of “crime doesn’t pay” without the recognizable dramatic crescendo, but it is certainly impactful. Instead of the peripheral wartime cynicism that marked its forebears, Frears and screenwriter Donald Westlake (co-credited with Jim Thompson, whose book of the same name the film is based on) bolster the sly narrative with individual ennui and isolationism that pervades the breaching arc from the eighties into the nineties, switching out the shadows for light. Yet it’s still dark.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: The main reason why The Grifters is a smart inclusion is because there needs to be more Frears in The Criterion Collection. For a while now I’ve been rooting for Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, and My Beautiful Laundrette (before its release) and you’ll likely hear all about them at some point. But for now, The Grifters would cover a substantial span of time charting Frears’ ascension from scrappily beautiful teleplays (that lead to My Beautiful Laundrette) to the handsomely mounted thrillers made stateside. With The Grifters, he did so without compromising himself in the process. The Grifters is streaming on FilmStruck alongside Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons, Cheri, Prick up Your Ears, The Hit (spine number 469) and The Snapper.