Screenplay : Donald E. Westlake (based on the novel by Jim Thompson)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1990
Stars : Anjelica Huston (Lilly Dillon), John Cusack (Roy Dillon), Annette Bening (Myra Langtry), Pat Hingle (Bobo Justus), Charles Napier (Hebbing), J.T. Walsh (Cole)
grift: (v) to engage in swindling or cheating; to obtain by grifting -- The American Heritage College Dictionary
Stephen Frears' "The Grifters" is almost too cynical and mean-spirited for its own good. In its attempt to expose the gritty underbelly of the con game, it makes itself into something like "The Sting" with a hard-edged existential bite to it. All the characters are swindlers, and the only question is who will end up with the short end of the con?
Is it Lilly Dillon (Anjelica Huston), a woman who works at race tracks for the Mob, placing big bets to change the odds while skimming off the top for herself? Or is it her 25-year old son Roy (John Cusack), a smalltime swindler who makes most of his money cheating bartenders and swindling Navy boys with fixed games of dice? Or, perhaps it is Roy's slutty girlfriend, Myra Langtry (Annette Bening), a one-time big shot con artist who slinks around in tight leather skirts and sleeps with her overweight, greasy landlord to avoid paying the rent?
British director Frears got a good taste of showing despicable people doing despicable acts with 1988's "Dangerous Liasions," but he obviously didn't get enough. In some ways, "The Grifters" is like a modern update, but there's no innocent Michelle Pfieffer character to be taken advantage of to inspire the audience's sympathy. Lilly, Roy, and Myra are all grifters of varying degrees, and the film traces their ups and downs and how their actions can either win them a lot of money (which they always keep in large wads of cash stored in hidden places) or get them killed. All their victims are either other grifters, or nameless secondary characters we never get to know.
Despite the potentially volatile subject matter, "The Grifters" is actually a rather slow-paced film that is more interested in the relationship between its three principle characters than it is in grifting. The movie is filled with all kinds of snappy-sounding jargon like "What's your angle?" and "Are you on the grift?" But unlike "The Sting," "The Grifters" deliberately denies the audience a big payoff by creating and pulling off a huge, complicated scheme. Most of the schemes in "The Grifters" are small time con jobs almost anyone could pull off with a little practice. There is a flashback to a big con Myra pulled ten years earlier with a pro grifter named Cole Langly (J.T. Walsh), but it's actually a rather uninspired and simple ploy.
The script by crime novelist Donald E. Westlake, from the novel by Jim Thompson, gives us enough twists and turns to keep us interested, but never riveted. The film chooses to be a character study rather than a plot machine, but none of the characters are truly interesting enough to really care about as people. Roy is the closest thing we have to a moral center, but somehow I was never able to get fully involved in his character. Cusack is a superb actor, but his character never really comes off the screen. We know that he left Lilly when he was 17 (she was only 14 when she had him), and at the beginning of the film they haven't seen each other since then. Part of the film deals with their trying to fix their broken mother-son relationship, but it's so badly damaged that it doesn't stand a chance.
Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening were both nominated for Academy Awards for their roles, and they are both deserving. Huston is cool and collected as Lilly, but in a scene with her boss Bobo (Pat Hingle), we realize that she is still vulnerable despite her tough exterior. Bening is wonderfully slinky and low, always willing to shed her clothes if it will get her what she wants. She wants to go for the long haul and take Roy with her, but if there's one thing about movies like this, no one can trust anyone else.
While "The Grifters" is stylishly photographed by Oliver Stapleton, well acted by the three leads, and guided with a steady hand by Frears, I still felt like there could have been more. It's so intent on not being what its title suggests it is, it misses huge opportunities. I guess the whole problem is that there's just not enough grifting going on.
©1997 James Kendrick