Directed and co-written by acclaimed filmmaker Neil Jordan, Greta treads some well-worn paths in the subgenre of stalker thrillers. However, thanks to some utterly committed performances from its leads, the Crying Game and Michael Collins director has created an intriguing character study and a downright giddy romp that registers to me as the first great film of 2019.
Set in New York but filmed chiefly in Ireland, the story follows the dynamic between a young college graduate named Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz, outfitted like a 1940s ingenue in modest yet alluring dresses, in sheer contrast to her Hit Girl past) and a French woman named Greta Hideg (the unparalleled Isabelle Huppert), whom she meets after finding her purse left behind on the subway and returning it to the address listed on Greta’s ID card.
Because Jordan has respect for his audience’s intelligence, the inciting event of the film is dispensed with in the opening credits. If you’re going to watch this movie, it stands to reason that you saw the trailer, which establishes the purse and the sinister turn that Greta takes towards Frances when she discovers other purses bearing the names and phone numbers of other women, presumably other victims. So rather than trying to set up a surprise, Jordan instead gets the more rote plot beats out of the way, and instead gets to the business of making the characters believable and in crafting the larger game.
Frances lives a privileged life, sharing an expensive loft with her roommate Erica (Maika Monroe from It Follows), who was given the unit outright by her wealthy parents after she and Frances graduated from Smith College. In other words, swan-KEE. Frances works as a waitress at an upscale restaurant, while Erica chooses to enjoy her youth, partying with friends and the like. However, what she lacks in drive and ambition, Erica makes up for in common sense and street smarts, serving as the “I told you so” friend of all great thriller and horror protagonists (most recently best exemplified by Lil Rel Howery in Get Out). From the very beginning she points out Frances’ naivete in picking up the bag in the first place. “This is New York. If you see an unattended bag you call Bomb Squad,” she wisely protests.
She also is the first to become wary of Greta’s influence in Frances’ life. What begins as a wonderfully shot introduction between the two, with clever hints scattered about the scene, eventually turns into a codependent relationship because Frances misses her late mother (to the point that she is estranged from her father, played by Colm Feore), and Greta herself is alone after being widowed, noting her own daughter studies overseas.
Things eventually escalate to a third act that is balls-to-the-wall crazy, with Greta kidnapping Frances and holding her hostage. This leads to both main actresses going all in on some tremendously extreme performances. For Moretz, she spins Frances’ perceived innocence into some diabolical – and delightful – survivalist instincts and actions.
Meanwhile, Huppert’s performance is an exercise in manic glee. Greta takes such joy in her games, always a step ahead because she’s always gotten away with it. In one moment she’s crying like the lonely widow she is, at other points she’s pulling Fatal Attraction moves like causing a scene at Frances’ restaurant (she literally flips a table, for God’s sake!) and dancing what looks like an Irish ballet jig as she entraps a private investigator played by Stephen Rea.
There are some trite moments to be sure, because it’s impossible to have this much scenery chewing without delving into cliché every now and again. However, there are some points that just don’t make sense. For example, Frances isn’t “worldly” enough to handle big metro areas like New York, which is used to explain why she picked up Greta’s bag. But then she tells Greta that she’s from Boston. The hell? I’ve spent a good amount of time in both cities. Trust me, the only differences in local security protocols are the accents of the officers. There have been bombings in Boston, for crying out loud. It is literally impossible to have been raised there and not be aware of “See something, say something” programs. Now, if she were from a more rural area, like even upstate New York, you might have a case, but Boston? Literally 200 miles away with Connecticut in between? Not buying it.
There are other minor gripes, like how Frances’ dick boss would tell her to get rid of Greta before things got weird but then insist that Frances serve Greta just because she “reserved a table” at the restaurant later. Also, the ending requires a LOT of suspension of disbelief for the final twist. But on the whole, the stellar performances and deliciously intricate web of deception that Neil Jordan weaves more than makes up for it. I found myself equal parts grinning and giggling throughout because of Huppert and Moretz’s skill in playing off one another, and the story (and occasional shock moments) kept me engaged the entire way through.
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