Miramax // 1990 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // January 14th, 2003
Seduction. Betrayal. Murder. Who's Conning Who?
Put the kids to bed, turn off the lights, and prepare to plunge into the neo-noir world divided into the thief and the mark, the quick and the taken. Full of sexuality, greed, and double-crossing con games, The Grifters makes a second and improved appearance on DVD.
Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is a practitioner of the small-con, cheating bartenders of $10 here, cheating sailors out of their cash there. He is good at the small time trickery, but sits uneasily on the border between grift and square, wondering which side he should be on. A failed fleece lands him in the hospital and squarely in the middle of a feline conflict. His girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening), a former long-con "roper" reduced to trading her body for rent, and his estranged mother Lily (Anjelica Huston), a racetrack odds fiddler working for mob boss Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle), don't like each other one little bit.
The women clash over what Roy should do. Myra wants him to be her new long-con partner, while Lily thinks he should just quit the grift since he just doesn't have the heart to do it right. Caught between the two, Roy is repelled by both options and carefully dances between the two women. When Lily has a sudden need to find money and disappear, but both Lily and Roy have their own ideas about her fate.
Director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity) had difficulty in getting writer Donald Westlake to adapt the original novel by Jim Thompson. "Too gloomy," Westlake said. Frears worked on Westlake, and spun The Grifters as a positive tale centering on survivor queen Lily, and not a negative story drawing on her more tragically inclined son or his older sex-kitten girlfriend. Good sales job, Stephen, but let's be honest. It is a negative film, with violence, gloomy atmosphere, grim motel rooms, and hair-trigger dishonesty oozing from every pore. Certain aspects of any film, no less The Grifters, will have a positive light, or certain characters have a journey less nihilistic than others, but the overall concept remains.
Yet, a film that lives and breathes on the dark side of life can still draw an audience into its world, to enthrall them and entertain them. Life is a mix of light and dark, and so movies illustrating these facts can entertain as long as they do so with vitality, intelligence, and care. Certainly the world of The Grifters is not for the faint of heart, where life is a moral quicksand, relaxing is a death wish, and escape is impossible.
What makes this film an adult's delight is the blend of cinematic components that satisfy the mind as well as the eye. The steady shower of grifter patois and technique is the basis for the layered detail that makes this film convincing. True or not, it has the convincing patina of daily reality for a sub-culture of thieves, con artists, and associated fraudulence. Donald Westlake's Oscar-nominated script paints the background, sets up our main players, and keeps us guessing as the action flows forward. Fine writing, and justly praised. Moreover, the words and actions come smoothly from actors who seamlessly inhabit their roles.
John Cusack (Say Anything, Grosse Point Blank, Being John Malkovich) naturally has the every-guy likeability and charm a short-con needs, but he layers his surface performance with deep unhappiness and Lily-inspired Oedipal twist. Roy grifts and scams, but Cusack's eyes and nonverbal cues tell us Roy hates the process and the result: it's just a job he can't manage to leave. From moment of our shock at seeing her platinum blonde hair, Anjelica Huston (Prizzi's Honor, The Addams Family, Blood Work) is impressive as fearsome woman who sinks her claws into Lily with her character's own fervent survival instinct. Sexual or cold, scheming or honest, Huston seems as driven to triumph as Lily does. Her mirror is the surprising Annette Bening (Mars Attacks, Richard III, American Beauty). Able to switch from glazed-over sex kitten to steel-edged liar in the blink of an eye, femme fatale Bening is surprising in her agility from the sexual to the selfish. Admire Myra, desire Myra, but do not ever trust her.
Let us not forget to mention the gallery of stars behind our primary trio! Say hello to familiar character actors Charles Napier (The Blues Brothers, The Critic) as an oil-man mark, Stephen Tobolowsky (Mississippi Burning, Sneakers, Groundhog Day) as a jeweler smitten by Myra, J.T. Walsh (Backdraft, Executive Decision) as Myra's former long-con partner, and Xander Berkeley (24, Apollo 13, Air Force One) as a confused Arizona detective. Worthy of an even warmer welcome is the always delightful Pat Hingle (Hang 'Em High, Sudden Impact, Batman), who makes Bobo Justus as cheerful as he is chilling.
The anamorphic video is generally high quality, with patches of grainy noise and minor edge enhancement the only significant exceptions. The Grifters is one of those films where color is painstakingly developed along with the plot, so keep an eye out for the lack of, introduction of, and increasing use of red. As for sound, the best part of the Dolby Surround track is Elmer Bernstein's (Animal House, Airplane!, Ghostbusters) original music. From the playfully sly opening (and credit music) to the dark drama of the final scene, it conveys mood without saying a word. Otherwise, the sound is well distributed across the front channels and reproduced in a wide pleasing sound spectrum.
The extras are a small but competent package. The commentary track, an edited compilation of comments from director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Donald Westlake, as well as John Cusack and Anjelica Huston, is a decently crafted and informative affair. The making-of featurette (16 minutes), with Stephen Frears on the world's worst bad hair day, and the Jim Thompson featurette (8 minutes) cover the basics of the film and the author with a blissful lack of the typical public relations fluff. The "scrapbook" is over one hundred production still photos and about thirty-five publicity stills. Notably, some of the production stills are of scenes deleted from this cut that Stephen Frears refers to in the commentary track. Full-frame trailers for Serendipity, High Fidelity, Grosse Point Blank, and 40 Days And 40 Nights round out the extras as an unadvertised bonus.
I demand my deleted scenes! Stephen Frears goes into great gory detail on the commentary track about the numerous deleted scenes, mentions areas they cover and why they were dropped, and none of that is included on the disc! For shame, Miramax! If you must double-dip, at least make the second dip fully worthy of the effort. Using the scrapbook to tease me further only aggravates the offense.
By design, The Grifters is a film that uses locations, costumes, and other parts from various periods, melding into an indeterminate setting. While this does give The Grifters a tasty mélange of background, this choice also avoids a potentially more lucrative route. Take Jim Thompson's darkly written novel, keep the structure and the characters, but push the setting and the con into the undeniable light of modernity. The audience gets lulled into the story by the familiar, but hit over the head with the imported story. The more things change, the more things stay the same!
With the texture of details and atmosphere, intense performances of complex, finely written roles, spiced with tension and erotic color, The Grifters is a gloomy drama suited for neo-noir fans as well as the rest of the adult audience. Priced to sell ($20 list), rent or buy, short-con or long-con, your choice.
I have to let The Grifters go, else Bobo Justus will get mad. You know about the oranges, don't you?
Review content copyright © 2003 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track
* Making-of Featurette
* Jim Thompson Featurette
* Nigerian E-Mail Grifters
* The Grifters Script