Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Review: Greta (2019)

Greta (2019)

Rated R for some violence and disturbing images

Score: 3 out of 5

Greta feels like a film misplaced in time. Watching it, it felt like I had wandered into a time warp where it was still the '90s, superhero movies didn't come with a certain baseline level of quality expected of them, and the middle class of Hollywood films between the indies and the blockbusters still existed. It's a stalker thriller bearing the influence of Fatal Attraction and Single White Female, one that relies purely on its two lead actresses to shoulder the entire burden of carrying the film over the finish line. If you've seen either of those two movies, then there's probably not a whole lot in this one that will surprise you, but that doesn't stop it from being entertaining all the same, not least because of its often willfully bonkers and campy tone. It's the kind of fun, trashy movie with enough of a veneer of artistry to escape the Lifetime movie trap, like many of the stylish and old-school thrillers it's drawing on, director Neil Jordan being a veteran of those sorts of flicks back during their '90s heyday. There's not a whole lot of depth to it other than watching two gifted actresses, basically playing themselves, going to war with one another, but that setup has an appeal all its own.

Frances McCullen is a young woman living in New York with her trust-fund college friend Erica, working as a waitress at a fancy restaurant to pay the bills. One day, she discovers a misplaced bag on the subway and, in a move that even Erica acknowledges is completely stupid and reflective of Frances' naivete in the big city, decides to return it to its owner, an older woman named Greta Hideg. Greta, a piano teacher whose daughter left her on bad terms years ago and who has never quite gotten over it, is obsessed with finding a surrogate daughter to replace her -- and when Frances accidentally discovers a whole bunch of identical handbags in Greta's house, she realizes that something is very, very wrong with the seemingly nice lady she just befriended.

From that point onward, this film is about the non-stop harassment that Frances receives from Greta, as she stalks Frances and her roommate Erica and tries to drag Frances into her life any way she can. The meat of the film is Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz as Greta and Frances, both of them playing very much to their respective types: Huppert as the French Meryl Streep, the classy lady who's willing to camp it up as a deranged stalker in a film that knows just how low-brow it actually is underneath the gloss, and Moretz as the innocent-looking young woman who will not put up with any of your shit. Watching Frances try to avoid Greta, and the two of them getting in each other's faces when that fails, is a joy unto itself, the two actresses elevating writing that does their characters no favors. Frances is a blank slate on the page, her backstory involving a recently deceased mother given only the barest exploration and existing largely to justify having her similarly-threadbare father get involved in the story towards the end; everything on the screen that got me invested in Frances came down to Moretz's work. But Moretz is very good at playing this particular type of heroine, that mix of sass and vulnerability that often reminded me of a younger, blonder Katharine Isabelle. The same is true of Huppert, who goes into full Jack Nicholson mode as she rants and raves at Frances. She's a world-class psycho-biddy here, and she dives into the role with relish, as though she'd been waiting to just ham it up after building her career on prestige flicks that win awards at European festivals. As the "best friend" Erica, Maika Monroe had a lot of work to do to avoid being outshined by Huppert and Moretz -- and as a fan of hers ever since It Follows, I was not at all surprised to see her pull it off, especially in a great moment towards the end of the film.

Behind the camera, director and co-writer Neil Jordan is at his best when he's directing his actors, getting the most out of their performances and using them to do most of the heavy lifting of getting us invested in the plot. When it comes to building suspense, his style leans gleefully into the lurid, especially when paired with a very heightened score that's big on loud cues, helping the film to feel a lot bigger than the fairly small-scale chamber piece that it actually is. He's setting out to build the fun kind of tension here, not the kind that really lingers with you. Unfortunately, that extends to the script he co-wrote with Ray Wright, which is perhaps the film's greatest fault. Numerous themes are touched on, including motherhood, female relationships, alienation in the big city, and the ineffectiveness of law enforcement in dealing with harassment, the last one being a theme that resonates even more now in the age of social media than it did in this genre's '90s heyday. But whenever it comes time to explore these themes with any measure of depth, the film squanders the opportunity, using them as little more than mechanisms to keep the plot rolling. Smarter writing and a willingness to cut deeper could've put this film over the top into the realm of the great modern thrillers, but it instead runs in the opposite direction, homaging its inspirations perhaps a little too well in that regard.

The Bottom Line

It's not at all the kind of high art that its pedigree suggests, but it's still a delightfully entertaining actors' showcase that's at its best when it's letting Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz engage in a tight and twisted game of cat and mouse. If you're into these sorts of old-fashioned thrillers, you'll probably have quite a bit of fun with this.

No comments:

Post a Comment