"YOU DON'T stand still," says con artist Anjelica Huston -- picture a weathered, grim-jawed horse under a blond perm of a mane. "You either go up or down, sooner or later. Usually down."
She's talking about the dangerous life of professional tricksters -- or grifters -- in which pros like her have to watch their rears. In "The Grifters," director Stephen Frears renders that cutthroat universe with adept strokes. Culled from the fecund, existentially dank world of Jim Thompson's novel, this wry-boiled adaptation (produced by Martin Scorsese) revels memorably in the treacheries, the double-crosses and the bleak un-niceties of life on the take. If Frears and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake (who scripted "The Stepfather") are light on substance, they're satisfyingly heavy on nuance. "Grifters" may not blow you away afterward but it keeps your attention riveted during.
Huston's a tough animal who journeys around the country jacking up odds on longshot horses at the track for natty-nasty bookie Pat Hingle. John Cusack is her estranged son, who operates his own racket on a relatively nickel-and-dime level. He thinks he can get out of the business when he wants. Huston knows she's stuck in it forever. Along comes shyster Annette Bening, sweet on Cusack and sweeter on those big stakes she used to shake her stuff for. A three-way power play takes place.
Huston's hard-edged performance is right on the money. There's a sinewy toughness to her; every move she makes -- physical and dramatic -- is geared towards a tight-lipped survival. Cusack uses his baby-faced, sleepy-eyed demeanor to good effect. He's puckish, petulant and sensitive all at the same time. But Bening (she was the scheming Madame de Merteuil in Milos Forman's "Valmont") merely brings nudity to her role. She exudes an appropriately floozy quality but ultimately lacks the acting machinery to make her role soar. For those who care, she is in great shape.
Frears creates some lovely touches, with the assured help of editor Mick Audsley, who reprises the exhilarating split-screen technique he brought to Frears's "Sammy & Rosie Get Laid"; and with cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, who gives the La Jolla/Phoenix locales a dirty-golden, siesta-inducing hue. With screenwriter Westlake, Frears also evokes the terse eloquence of the films noir of the '40s and '50s, the dark and snappy rejoinders.
"Myra's been here," Huston tells Cusack with distate, referring to Bening.
"And what's your objection to Myra?" asks her son.
"Same as anybody's," she retorts.
For all its moments, there's a somewhat empty cumulative effect to the movie. When Cusack and Huston have their impending finale together (details to be omitted here), it becomes clear this jagged mother-son relationship could have used some further fleshing. But film noir was never big on fully rounded relationships, just collections of human pawns on a shadowy chessboard. This is one human board game that's absorbing to watch.