DVD for August: 'The Grifters'
The Grifters is a strange combination of styles and themes. The era it most clearly evokes is that of film noir. The story has John Cusack caught up in the troublesome machinations of two femme fatales, his estranged mother (Angelica Houston) and his girlfriend (Annette Bening). The world of the movie is one of double cross and playing cons with scenes drenched in shadow and smooth dialogue right out of a pulp fiction novel. Director Stephen Frears delivers a great visual mix, ranging from a split screen introduction, a dark, rich textured feel to a night time car pursuit and beautiful shots such as an elevator descent, clearly an ode to the films ‘The Grifters’ seeks to emulate. The film though is not just a straight lift of the classic story structures used in film noir as used in other modern noir such as ‘The Last Seduction’ or ‘Body Heat’. No one is imperviously cool, Houston, a seasoned con is still the pawn of a bigger player, and is subject to human frailty – whether it be concern for her son or a reliance on the power of money. Bening is on the surface the classic mix of personability and seductiveness, but the way in which she uses her body comes across as more seedy than sexy. Both the female leads were Oscar nominated.
Cusack though not nomination material does deliver a great performance, playing well how essentially out-of-depth he is, struggling to pull off short cons, meet the demands of his girlfriend and fathom his relationship with his mother, one which crosses the line of merely making Oedipal suggestions. He reminded me of Frances McDormands character in ‘Blood Simple’, who had no true sense of what was going on around her, yet was dragged into a world dictated by the selfish actions of those around her. Here too Cusack is only ever a method of advancing or a method of escaping. No one can emerge as a tragic figure, they are each too flawed, too fallible to vengeance and the power of money and too akin to striking suggestive poses to deserve sympathy. Nevertheless, they are somehow compelling to watch. Be sure to consider this the next time you are rummaging through DVD titles.