The Grifters (1990)

Directed by Stephen Frears

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What a strange little ride.  I think I love The Grifters purely because of how odd, twisted and inspired it is.  The 1990 film feels like a colorized version of something from the 1940s, complete with the film noir tropes, femme fatales, Elmer Bernstein music, misdirection, corrupted souls and mistaken identities.

The two similar-looking blonde haired women resemble Marion Crane in Psycho, and one, Lilly (Anjelica Huston), spends much of the second half of the film on the run, in the driver’s seat looking over her shoulder through dark sunglasses.  She even spends some time in Phoenix, where Crane began her escape before meeting her fate at the Bates Motel.

The story plays up the ways Lilly and Myra (Annette Bening) look like each other, and of course one will eventually kill the other and take her place, like in the 1964 film Dead Ringer with Bette Davis playing two twin sisters with malicious intentions.

In The Grifters we separately meet three important characters who will spend the rest of the story embroiled in some kind of psychological power play between each other.  They are Roy (John Cusack), Lilly and Myra.

Roy is a small time conman who takes a beating for slipping up during a petty bar room trick that would have netted him ten dollars.  Lilly works the race tracks, tampering with the odds to improve certain payouts, and Myra, well we don’t exactly know what she’s up to yet.  Later we will learn how she and a former lover executed a couple big cons each year, taking in around $100,000 each time.

Roy and Myra are in some kind of relationship, one seemingly fueled by physical attraction and, if I were to guess, speed.  They get off on pulling the same kinds of tricks, but neither seems to know this about the other.  When Myra reveals her old cons to Roy there is a wonderful little moment in which he at first smiles, recognizing in her a shared spirit, but then he pulls back and treats her like you would a rival.  The implication is clear, that he might simply be her latest mark, the prey that her predator circles on a dry desert day.

It’s that kind of distrust which runs through every movie of this sort.  It’s there in a movie like The Mechanic (1972), about assassins who team up until one of them turns on the other, and in David Mamet’s House of Games (1987).  In the latter one character teaches another the tools of the trade, specifically as it relates to the “confidence game” until the mentee realizes the mentor has been fooling her all along.

Such corrupted characters who are only out for themselves and thus can’t trust anyone else is ingrained in the film noir.  Though these characters aren’t private eyes, cops or contract killers, they go about their routine with the same ruthless intensity.  It makes sense, then, that there are a few punches thrown and a not insignificant body count.

There is another layer to this which at once seems a detour from the main story and entirely connected to it all.  Lilly is Roy’s mother and had him when she was only fourteen years old.  It’s obvious she and Myra are meant to resemble each other, and the two women constantly clash with each other as if there’s a recognition that the cosmic powers that be made a mistake and printed two of them.  They each seem to believe that they can’t exist while the other does.

The tense relationship between mother and son is illuminated a little more when Myra suggests that Roy and his mother have previously been intimate.  He reacts violently and defensively, but a later scene in which Lilly attempts to seduce Roy in an effort to steal money from him, makes it quite clear this sexual subtext is there.  It’s, uh, well it’s quite something.

When someone is so purely out for him or herself, it seems all other lines are blurred.  Lovers aren’t just so, and the conventional boundaries between those who share the same blood are gone.  They become prostitutes of the soul, selling in addition to sex the essence of their being.  For that these characters will be punished and tormented, two dead and another sobbing her way into oblivion.  They all lose, but they seemed to have so little to work with from the start that there was never any hope to begin with.

Up Next: Ben Is Back (2018), Doubt (2008), The Mule (2018)

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