Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Grifters -- Mini-review: the price of deceit

Director: Stephen Frears, 1990 (R)

The movie opens with a triple split screen. Each shows one person; all turn and look out at the camera, wearing sunglasses. This is a movie about three people, a love-hate triangle with a noir twist.

Set mostly in sunny California, the film tells the story of Roy (John Cusack), a small-time short-con artist who takes marks for a few dollars here, a few dollars there. The second person is Myra (Annette Benning), a roper who ropes hapless saps into the long-con, worth thousands of dollars. But since her partner's departure, she uses her looks and her body simply to pay the rent. The final person in this triad is Lily (Anjelica Huston), Roy's mother. She works for mobster Bobo by placing high bets at the horse race tracks on long-odds nags to mitigate potential mob losses.

When a bar-con (switching a $20 bill for a $10 and getting more change than he deserves) goes bad, Roy takes a baseball bat in the stomach and starts slowly bleeding internally. The ensuing hospital stay causes Myra and Lily to meet and mother bear's claws come out. The natural antipathy between the two women set the scene for the second and third acts.

In between these two female sharks stands Roy, totally out of his league though he does not know it. He simply wants to make it in the farm leagues while Myra wants to score the big one. Roy does not even recognize another con-man.

The Grifters show these three people trying to survive on the grift, living only for themselves, not caring much about others even those in their own family. As a film noir, it bears all the elements, including the femme fatale and the sense of inevitable and inescapable tragedy. There can be no real winners here. The climax has two of the characters facing off, both wanting the same thing: money not love. In an unexpected turn of events, the one who gets it has to pay a deep price. Even survivors survive only at a sharp cost.

There is little of redemptive note here, even though the film works as a noir. We do not truly root for any of the characters, each carrying his baggage of deceit. It does underscore the inherent wickedness, in large or small, that lies in the very depths of each one of us. The prophet Jeremiah said it clearly enough: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9) We could be Roy. Better, perhaps than being Myra or Lilly. But the end result is the same.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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