Stephen Frears's "The Grifters" is a delectable con job of a movie. It seduces you into believing it's merely a cheeky trifle, and then, when you least expect it, lowers the boom.
Indeed, the tone of this nimble, persistently odd movie is wicked and buoyant. With a script from Donald Westlake, who worked from the Jim Thompson novel about a trio of small-time crooks, the picture is brisk and sleekly contoured, with a sophisticated sense of cynical fun. The line Westlake and Frears walk skirts the edge of parody; it's the most puckish of film noirs. Their characters are scoundrels, but they have a hipster's arrogance; they play the sucker for nobody, and the sneaky thrill here comes from watching them work the angles for the upper hand.
Frears plays up the venal gamesmanship of his wise-guy opportunists; clearly, he appreciates the precision craftsmanship that goes into their con artistry. Though the milieu resembles that of "The Sting," in spirit the picture recalls "Beat the Devil" or "Prizzi's Honor." Like Frears's last movie, "Dangerous Liaisons," "The Grifters" is a celebration of amoral scheming; it has a knowing, ironic glint in its eye.
There's a sly deception in the movie's jauntiness, however. It's not what we might have expected it to be: It's not shallow. But it doesn't do what most movie adaptations of Thompson's novels do; it doesn't roll out the existential thunder drums.
Instead, Frears penetrates to the human element in Thompson's tabloid universe, to the core of his characters' lives. The movie has teeth, and it bares them without losing its mangy skid-row sass. Frears has assembled a sublime cast of actors to play his sleazy pack of operators. Roy (John Cusack), who claims to sell matches and lives in a borderline reputable hotel in L.A., plays the "short con," working low-risk nickel-and-dime grifts designed to keep him in the game but out of trouble.
What Roy shoots for in his everyday life is a kind of bland anonymity; he's low-key to the point of invisibility. Roy is inured to a scaled-back, bunkered-in existence; he doesn't mind being a small-timer. There's a problem, though; his girlfriend, Myra (Annette Bening), is built for limousines and the fast lane. She used to work the high-end cons, suckering oil-rich Texans out of their millions. Recently, though, she's fallen on hard times and casually turns tricks to make ends meet. With her platinum tastes, Myra is itching to get back into the big money, and she sees Roy as her ticket. Roy sees otherwise; if the "long con" artist slips up, he goes to jail, violating the first of Roy's two commandments -- never do time.
With his soulful eyes and tiny, pensive mouth, Cusack is like a Valley Boy Byron; his patter is tough, but he looks too sensitive, too poetic, for the line of work he's chosen. It's shrewd for Frears to have picked the fresh-faced Cusack for the part of Roy, and brilliant of him to choose Anjelica Huston to play the part of his mother. Lily, who's only 14 years older than her 25-year-old son, drops in on him just after he's had a baseball bat shoved into his gut. She's in the business too, handling "playback" at horse tracks around the country for a Baltimore-based bookie (Pat Hingle). But even after she's rushed Roy to the hospital, saving his life, he wants nothing to do with her. They're blood enemies, really, and though Roy's animosity toward Lily has something to do with her abandoning him at an early age, the tension between them goes far beyond that into something Oedipal.
Lily's protectiveness can't be fully explained as blossoming maternal urges, either. Sex is a major figure in the geometry Frears sets up between his characters. The film's real battle is between Myra and Lily, who both want a piece of Roy -- who decides he wants nothing to do with either of them. Lily's haughty disdain for Myra is riotously lowdown; she manages to snub her with nearly every feature of her anatomy. Huston's thoroughbred elegance has never seemed swankier than it does here. She appears more womanly here than ever before, and with her snow-white hair cropped close to her head, her limbs seem so impossibly elongated that the sight of her merely walking across a room in her stepladder heels becomes an eye-popping occasion. (Imagine the spirit of Mae West entering the body of a giraffe.)
But if Huston's physical attributes seem grandly overscaled, her emotions are precisely tailored and exact. None of the characters in the novel is fully articulated; they're sketches really, cartoons. But if Huston is a cartoon, she's drawn in flesh and blood. She brings a vital conviction to her scenes; they're scorchingly immediate, and her ability to get in sync with what Lily's feeling is what gives the movie weight. She may be the best we have.
As Myra, Bening gives one of the most feline performances in movie history; she's pure cat. If Huston anchors the film, Bening supplies it with something else -- something like a champagne tickle. She slithers through the movie, clothes on and clothes off, as if the camera were some sort of aphrodisiac. She's the latest in a long line of movie vixens, but she brings a joyous lack of inhibition to the assignment. She takes naughty manipulation to new levels of abandon.
"The Grifters" is pretty sparsely populated; it's mostly these three rats, but Hingle does execute a suave bit of cruelty as Lily's mobster boss. His presence drops a little gravel into the mix. What's fascinating about the film is how it never loses its Southern California airiness; it never turns dark, even when it turns grim. The range of colors in Oliver Stapleton's cinematography is splashy without being overbright or gratuitously stylish. Frears has taken a novel approach to Thompson's losers; he's decided to have fun with them. And as a result, that's what we get too.
The Grifters, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some nudity, adult language and mild violence.