I love films about crime and confidence tricksters so I’m not sure why this one slipped through the cracks. Oh well, here goes.
Based on a pulp novel by Jim Thompson and adapted for the screen by Donald Westlake, The Grifters tells the story of three con artists, their ways of getting on in the world, and the often tragic ways their lives intersect. Lilly (Anjelica Huston) works for a mob guy back east decreasing the odds on long shots at the race track in La Jolla. Whenever she sees long odds on a horse, she puts money down on it thus decreasing the odds and therefore the pay out. Lilly decides to visit her son Roy (John Cusack) in Los Angeles just in time to save him from a life threatening injury and put her in danger of one from her boss, Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle in a scary and effective role). Lilly and Roy have an odd, hinted at relationship so when Lilly meets Roy’s love interest, Myra (Annette Bening) sparks, albeit understated ones, fly. Roy keeps his livelihood a secret from the two women, but the audience knows he’s on the grift as well. He makes his living nickel and diming bartenders while presenting himself as a good citizen. Mom knows he’s no salesman and Myra suspects, but neither can prove it until Roy and Myra, who’s no saint herself, take a trip to La Jolla and Myra sees Roy in action. She confronts Roy who admits he’s a con man and then asks him to go in with her on a big con. Myra recounts her experience with major league grifting and thinks Roy would make a great partner. Myra’s description of her former life stars the always fantastic J.T. Walsh and is easily the best part of the film. Roy won’t bite though claiming the fact that he’s small-time and has no partners has kept him alive and out of jail. Myra is convinced that Lilly’s dislike of her keeps Roy from the big con so she sets out to take Lilly out of the picture. What happens next pits the three opportunists against each other in a fight for survival.
Set in late 1980s California, The Grifters could easily take place in the 1940s or even in ancient Greece with its Oedipal twinges and tragic events. The characters are world weary and tough and exist in boarding houses, race tracks, and bars. Despite their living outside the law, they live within the law of their own society and know the penalties of transgressing there. A host of tremendous character actors including Eddie Jones, Charles Napier, and Henry Jones gives this film the atmosphere of a classic noir despite its setting. Directed by Stephen Frears and produced by Martin Scorsese, the film’s glossy look contrasts starkly with the dark lives the main characters live. The Grifters is a well done neo-noir which combines the intricacy of a good con artist film with the brutality of a more modern crime drama. The only fault I find with the film is that it didn’t delve deeply enough into the lives and crimes of its characters. Perhaps giving us only a glimpse into these lives was the point though because it made me wonder about what happened before and after this episode. I enjoyed The Grifters overall and I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it.