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Revisiting 1990: The Grifters

August 27, 2010

Considered For: Top 5

“I looked and I looked and believe me, brother, I kissed a lot of fucking frogs…”

The Grifters has flown under my radar for twenty years now. I had never even heard of this movie until I started looking at the 1990 movie list, but a cast starring Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annette Bening in a movie about con artists sold me immediately. A production credit from Martin Scorsese didn’t hurt it’s resume either. Despite its relative obscurity, The Grifters was immediately bumped to the top of my Netflix queue.

As noted, this is a movie about con artists filmed by then British director Stephen Frears. The story centers around short con man Roy Dillon (Cusack) and the women in his life. It’s clear from the beginning of the film that Roy is into small cons, like showing a bartender a $20 bill and then swapping it out for a $10 when the bartender comes back to make change for him… or using word play to his advantage for small gains against bar customers. His mother, Lily (Huston), is in a different league, however. She makes rounds at the horse tracks to place large bets for a mob-type organization, diving in at the last second to tip the odds. Not being educated on horse racing, it’s a concept that goes over my head, but I suspect she’s playing for high stakes, both in terms of money and her own personal safety. Roy’s girlfriend Myra (Bening) is a bit more of an enigma. She’s not as easy to figure out and Bening initially plays the character as happy-go-lucky and somewhat naive, but something still tells you that it’s the character doing the acting here. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say she might be the biggest con artist of them all. The core of the movie kicks in when Lily and Myra meet after Roy is hospitalized for a life-threatening injury suffered when a con goes wrong. In a way, the two women are threatened and intrigued by each other, an obsession that could have tragic consequences.

The acting in this movie is superb. We get Oscar-nominated performances from Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening. I’ll be revisiting Ghost relatively soon, but I’ll be surprised if Whoopi Goldberg’s performance is really better than Bening’s in this movie. In a lot of ways, Myra was my favorite character. She’s demented to a degree that the Dillons haven’t really reached yet. Myra is more than willing to use her sexuality to her advantage, even trading sex with her undesirable landlord in exchange for rent. Roy is completely ignorant of his woman’s indiscretions and it’s Bening’s performance within a performance that has him none the wiser. Myra has the wool pulled over everyone’s eyes… until she meets Lily. I wouldn’t ever name Anjelica Huston amongst my favorite actresses–she always seems to play every role with a detached and emotionless air, think The Addam’s Family and The Royal Tenenbaums–but it’s hard to say she’s not consistently solid in her roles. Even though Lily had Roy when she was 14 and didn’t have much to do with raising him, you still get a sense that she loves him and feels responsible for what he has become. She recognizes he’s not really cut out for “grifting” and is frequently suggesting he find another career. Speaking of Roy, John Cusack gives a solid performance as well. In fact, it was his character that hooked me into this movie immediately. In a lot of ways, Roy is the mark here, but Cusack’s calm confidence in the opening scenes makes you think he just might have it all figured out. All in all, a great set of performances from every one involved.

While the Academy recognized the acting performances in this movie, The Grifters may have been overlooked in the Best Picture department. Granted, I’m still early in my quest of 1990 movies, but I know for sure it’d rank in my top 5 at the moment, which at least gives it an edge over The Godfather: Part III, which was nominated. The story here is based on a novel, but I’ve never read it, so I have no basis for commenting on the translation to the big screen, but it did get a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and I’ve read that a lot of the dialogue is taken word for word from the book… dialogue that is often very good. I enjoyed the story here and was highly invested in all the characters. You can’t help but root for Roy in this movie… he’s out of his league dealing with his mother and girlfriend, which in a way, makes him more likable than Lily and Myra. I also can’t help but point out Jeremy Piven’s cameo in this movie. Piven was never a household name until Entourage, so it’s kind of funny seeing him in his earlier days as a relatively unknown. You can still see some of the character tics that Ari’s made famous today.

I’ve never heard one person I know mention this movie, so hopefully this review can open some eyes. The Grifters is a solid film, with an interesting story and some great performances. Bening is terrific here and the movie is fun, despite a noticeably dark tone. Anyone that’s never seen this movie, should at least give it a shot. I highly doubt you’ll walk away disappointed. It’s possible The Grifters will make my final Top 5 of 1990 list, but I can guarantee it will at least be in the Top 10. Check it out.

Grade: A-
Viewings: 1
Replay Value: Maybe not collection worthy, but I’d definitely watch it again.
Sequel Potential: None
Oscars?: Four nominations: Anjelica Huston for Best Actress, Annette Bening for Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Stephen Frears for Best Director.
Nudity?: Annette Bening gets VERY naked… a couple times… and she’s spectacular.

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