Jordan’s Playfully Perverse Greta an Irreverently Amoral Thriller
Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) thinks she is doing a good deed. After finding a designer purse on the subway, the Boston native currently living in New York City with her college best friend Erica Penn (Maika Monroe) decides to return it to the owner herself. That person turns out to be the eccentrically friendly Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), a French piano teacher currently living alone what with her daughter studying ballet in Paris and her beloved husband dead from illness for quite some time now. The pair strike up an instant friendship, the older woman seeing in Frances the daughter who has left for bigger and brighter things while the young woman notices in the kindly Greta fragments of the mother she herself lost to cancer just one year prior.
All seems wonderful. The pair become inseparable, Frances even convincing Greta to adopt a dog from the local shelter. But things get increasingly strange. Erica is the first one to notice it, imploring Frances to be careful and not let the older woman get too close too fast. Greta doesn’t like it when her young new friend starts trying to put a little distance between the two of them. She shows up at Frances’ work and makes a scene that compels the police to be notified. She calls her at all hours leaving a variety of alarming messages. Greta even starts stalking Erica, sending pictures of the blonde flibbertigibbet to Frances that make it look like she is about to do something despicable to her.
There’s a lot to say about director Neil Jordan’s Greta, much of which one doesn’t want to dig too deeply into as doing so might inadvertently reveal a few of the more playfully malevolent surprises hidden within his and Ray Wright’s (The Crazies) creatively disturbing screenplay. What can be said is that the movie is indeed a thriller, and Greta Hideg isn’t a woman to be trifled with. Not only does she demand respect, but she’ll also do whatever she wants to in order to ensure she gets it, her murderously quirky charm concealing an explosively acidic temper that once unleashed cannot be easily contained. Greta knows what she wants, friendship and companionship, Frances only the most recent innocent young woman to discover this, much to her own personal peril.
For Jordan, this movie is a long way from the Oscar-winning heights of The Crying Game or of the mesmerizing strength of titles as richly diverse as Mona Lisa, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, The End of the Affair, The Good Thief or Byzantium. But he’s just too great a filmmaker for this fancifully devilish thriller not to resonate, and much like his 1999 unhinged psychedelic psychological freak-out In Dreams or his whacky, colorfully volatile 1984 take on the “Red Riding Hood” fairy tale The Company of Wolves there’s just too much idiosyncratic awesomeness for this effort to be construed as anything even remotely akin to a failure. The film’s unconventional weirdness allows it to resonate on an oddly intimate level that’s extraordinary, and while plot holes abound inside Jordan and Wright’s script most of them are so minor pointing them out feels like a waste of time.
Then there is the luminous Huppert. The daring, forcefully dynamic actress has played a myriad of incredible characters in her four-plus decade career, and as her recent Academy Award-nominated performance in 2016’s Elle showed she has no intent on slowing down or playing things safe anytime soon. While it’s unlikely Greta Hideg will be remembered in the same breath as the character she portrayed in Paul Verhoeven’s drama or in exceptional motion pictures like The Piano Teacher, Things to Come, La Cérémonie, La Séparation, Madame Bovary, Coup de Torchon and so many additional titles impossible to name here, that does not mean she isn’t any less magnificent. This vicious little performance is the raison d’être to give this feature a look, Huppert dominating to such a staggering degree it’s doubtful the thriller would have been even passingly worthwhile had she declined to be a part of the production. She’s perfect, one little moment where she bemusedly ballet dances across a hardwood living room floor after doing something horrendous having me clutching my throat in terrifying chills while giggling madly at the sheer lunacy of her antics all at the exact same time.
In a very different sort of role Moretz is also very good here, especially during the film’s first half. Frances’ lingering pain over the death of her mother intimately mingles with her growing attachment to Greta. But what’s happening between the two of them is nothing but an illusion, and when the artifice of it all become apparent the hurt and the disgust she showcases is poignantly palpable. While not nearly as stunning as her tour de force turn in last year’s masterful The Miseducation of Cameron Post this is still a strong performance from the actress, Moretz once again showing she’s one of the more agreeably adventurous young talents of her generation.
The movie does sort of forget what to do with Moretz during its latter stages, Frances becoming more of a terrified observer to what is transpiring than she is an active participant. Yet Jordan still manages to keep things interesting, the constantly shifting points-of-view keeping me on my toes in ways I personally found exhilarating. The director also gets a fine, subtly multifaceted performance out of It Follows star Monroe that’s far more intricate than I initially gave it credit for being, the actress catching me by surprise with how she allowed the superficial and haughty Erica to become a strong-willed, selfless dynamo with more intelligence and wherewithal than she typically allows anyone other than her closest friends to notice.
As far as the aforementioned plot holes go there’s an egregiously major one involving the use of law enforcement (or lack thereof) when the central mystery involving Greta and Francis’ relationship kicks into high gear, but I can’t really get into it because doing so would spoil a major twist something fierce. Veteran character actors Colm Feore and Stephen Rea are also all but wasted in a pair of roles that frustratingly don’t add up to anything substantive, which is honestly peculiar considering just a how big a part they each play in what eventually ends up happening to both women by the end of the film. I could also say there was something off with the whimsically cryptic oddness of Greta’s overall plan if I wanted to but thankfully Jordan handles this aspect of the story with such assertive venality I’m willing to forgive any missteps there as far as that’s concerned, the delightfully fragile vulgarity of it all just too ingeniously pleasurable for me to resist.
All of which means Greta won’t be for everyone. Its horrifying atmosphere grows increasingly potent as events progress, and Huppert’s playfully perverse performance is strangely intoxicating in a way that almost makes the titular character worth rooting for. But all of that is arguably why I enjoyed Jordan’s latest pulpy psychological terror as much as I did, and viewers open to pleasures as wicked and as abhorrent as the ones mentioned in this review owe it to themselves to give the director’s irreverent thriller a look.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)