The Grifters (1990) Poster

(1990)

User Reviews

Add a Review
96 Reviews
Sort by:
Three For One Odds
Lechuguilla18 September 2007
Most films have one, and only one, protagonist around whom the story is told. But "The Grifters" has three, all of them petty swindlers, desperate for quick cash or good odds at a "long con". And it's the personal relationships among these three criminals, complex, sometimes dark, and almost always motivated by survival, that make this film a pretty good bet.

Roy Dillon (John Cusack), is a trickster, a loner, "on the grift" for the "short con", strictly a nickels and dimes man. His mom is Lilly (Anjelica Huston); she's a middle-aged lady with white hair; she's seductive, cold-blooded, and tough as nails; she's been around the block a few times. Roy's love interest is Myra (Annette Bening), a shapely, fun loving babe who uses her charms to con rich businessmen. These three people are highly manipulative and scheming, on-guard, and mistrustful of each other and the rest of the world.

The film's tone is bleak and gloomy. There's very little "heart" in this film. And that's a problem, because I found these characters not very sympathetic. They lead lives of quiet desperation, grimy and tawdry. Still, "The Grifters" is a crime story in the best tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, a pulpy melodrama about the underbelly of urban America.

The film's structure is conventional, and contains a number of flashbacks. The set-up is tediously long. The second half of the film is better than the first half, in my opinion, because the second half contains more suspense.

Dialogue is direct and tough, like when Lilly makes her point to the ambulance driver who takes Roy to the hospital and is skeptical about Roy's chances for survival: Says Lilly: "My son is gonna be alright, if not, I'll have you killed". Later, she explains the facts of life to her son: "Grifts like anything else Roy, you don't stand still, you either go up or down, usually down, sooner or later". Yes indeed, it's a tough life being a "grifter"; but Lilly is one tough broad.

The film's color cinematography is fine. And the film has a terrific title sequence and a great Elmer Bernstein score at the beginning. Editing, costumes, and production design are all credible.

If you're in the mood for a gritty, bleak story of petty criminals in a well made modern film, "The Grifters" is a good choice. As a bonus, the DVD has an exceptionally good Commentary, with insightful comments from Director Stephen Frears, and actors John Cusack and Anjelica Huston.
32 out of 35 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
10/10
Great Writing, Acting Make This A Superior 'Noir'
ccthemovieman-112 January 2007
Here is a modern-day "film noir," if I ever saw one. You get sleazy characters with no morals, brutal attitudes, some interesting photography and a story that is not exactly a happy one - all the ingredients of a good noir. Since the film is a 1990 one and not the '40s and '50s (in which purists think that's the only period for noirs), you also get nudity and profanity.

The best part of the film, to me, is the fact that the three leading characters are so interesting. You never know what these intriguing characters are going to do next. There is an odd mother-son relationship, too - very odd, between John Cusack and Angelica Huston who play "Lilly and Roy Dillon." The third person among this trio of "grifters" (scam artists) is played by Annette Bening, who never looked prettier or demonstrated her lack of morals better than she did here as the wicked "Myra Langtry." You can see all of Bening in this movie, and I mean all. Huston, on the other hand, tries to look sexy but is too hard-looking and certainly no competition for Bening, in age or looks. But Angelica is a terrific actress and I thought her character, was easily the most interesting of the three leads. Cusack, meanwhile, gives an underrated performance: one of the best in his career.

Three supporting guys in here are fantastic: Pat Hingle as "Bobo Justus," J.T. Walsh as "Cole," and Charles Napier as "Gloucester Hebbing." Overall, this is a wonderful cast that does full justice to this unusual crime story.

The story has a mean edge to it most of the way, but that's the style of writer Jim Thompson, who is a very good crime author who wrote the novel on which this movie is based. He has written several fascinating books. Donald Westlake, who wrote the screenplay, is a prolific crime story writer.

There is not a lot of action in this film but when it occurs, it is shocking and brutal. This movie always entertains me every time I view it.
42 out of 49 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
8/10
Worth it
FunnyMann13 October 2001
"The Grifters" is a quality piece of work that shows you a world you don't often see. It's a seedy little world, but a fun one to spend two hours in.

Whenever I pass this film on cable, I always stop to watch a few minutes (and often more) because it contains some fantastic acting. Anjelica Houston, John Cusack and Annete Bening act their little tushies off. Cusack's portrayal of a low-level grifter with an Oedipal complex the size of Texas is some of his best work. Based on "American Beauty," everyone knows that Bening can act, but anyone who saw "The Grifters" knew that long ago. She does a bang-up job as (let's be frank) a con-artist slut.

This movie does have a few implausibilities, but nothing that spoils it. Otherwise, nothing but good things to say about this one. Recommended.
23 out of 26 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
A seedy underbelly of life exposed for all to see
ToldYaSo16 August 1999
Years ago, this was one of the films I was quite pleased with myself for seeing. I didn't know much about it, but decided to take a chance on it, with no regrets. From the opening sequence to the end credits I was mesmerized and in awe of events that communicated an entirely alien philosophy. Based on the novel by Jim Thompson, "The Grifters" tells a tale of a world that lies just under the surface of the one we know of. That is of course, if you count yourself among the squares and suckers who often fall prey to the craftsmen of the grift.

With startling precision, intrigue and depth, the story unfolds chronicling the lives of three distinctly different yet intertwined individuals. Their setting and perspective is entirely foreign to the majority of us. The filmmakers portray the grifters' different methods and environments as skilled scam artists. For unless you've had a personal experience having fallen prey or gotten wise to a grifter's ploy, you'll simply have to accept the reality of it. They are out there, waiting for the suckers to be born.

This particularly dark tale is very stylishly directed and moves along at a good pace. Each turn offers another sneak peek into the games played and the tricks pulled. The prey are often unaware of their own victimization as they go on about their business.

Another aspect the film deals with is trust or the lack thereof. Our protagonists spend most of their time scamming, conning and tricking people so much that their sense of trust and decency breaks down. They alienate themselves from everyone, and ultimately can't even trust each other.

And of course, what drama would be complete without a twisted love triangle in the mix with betrayal and murder to keep it interesting. If this doesn't sound like another day at the office, you might just find the workplace of "The Grifters" intriguing. Seeing it today, I enjoyed it as much as I did years ago, before I opened my eyes for a fresh look at the world.
28 out of 33 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
7/10
Unusually Good
Robert J. Maxwell20 August 2002
Wanting to test out my testosterone in boot camp I decided to try out for the boxing team and went to the gym with a friend. Neither of us knew anything about boxing. The coach put us both in the ring and said, "Okay, let's see what you can do," or something equally Hemingwayesque. On the first half-hearted swing, Andy dealt me a glancing blow on the upper abdomen with a glove the size and density of a throw pillow. I went down on my knees and grabbed the ropes, thinking I might die from the pain. It had never occurred to me, watching the odd bout on TV, that every time one of those guys got punched -- it hurt! End of boxing career. This is the kind of movie in which, when somebody gets punched in the belly, he goes down and stays down. For several days.

It's a movie for grown ups about grifters -- con people -- who work all sorts of games on one another. It's not "The Sting," which is funny and which is about "the big con," as it's evidently still called, requiring eons of preparation. This film is about people who cheat, artists in their own ways, but not theatrical producers.

John Cusack is handsome in a pale way and delivers a decent performance as a young man who plays "short cons", clipping people out of nickels, dimes, and dollars, although he's been doing it long enough to put away something of a stash.

Annette Bening, his girl friend, is much more into the life, with quite a history. She's very pretty too. She has a gracile figure and minces when she walks. In addition to the sleek clothes she occasionally has on in this film, she wears a big open-lipped smile, speaks in a breathless Marilyn Monroe whisper, and has eyes that sparkle with mischief and deceit. There is murder behind that grin.

Angelica Huston is a puzzle. She's excellent here as a woman who works for Bobo, Pat Hinkle, a pudgy sadist, his best role in a generation. But her appearance is disturbing. It's as if, during childhood, her skeleton couldn't quite make up its mind about how mannish to become, how broad the shoulders should be, how high and boney the pelvic girdle. I don't mean that she is in any way unfeminine because she's not. It's simply that, knowing what her Dad looks like, I see the resemblance as so marked that it's kind of embarrassing to find her attractive.

J. T. Walsh is perfect as the big con artist with that boyishly naive candor that sucks the marks in because it is nothing more than a psychopath's mask.

He has a sympathetic, believable face, though he was stand-offish in person, and it's a shame that he died at such a relatively early age because he's always been a pleasure to watch.

The story has some very dark undertones. It isn't just that Bening is trying to rope Cusak into the grifter's way of life, or that Huston and her son Cusak have been estranged for eight years, or that Huston is skimming off the top while working for Bobo the Dangerous, or that Cusak is trying to minimize his cons. These themes are interesting enough in themselves and would add up to something resembling "House of Games." But it's a lot more Freudian than that. Of all the forms of incest in the nuclear family, mother-son incest is the rarest. And when it happens, or even when the impulse manifests itself, it's a shocker. Huston and Bening, on first meeting, take an immediate dislike to one another and trade open insults. Bening: "I'm Roy's friend." Huston: "I imagine you're a lot of peoples' friend." Bening: "Oh -- NOW I see. Yes, in the light you look easily old enough to be Roy's mother." The hatred is based on a jealousy that only Bening is able to discern. Some outstanding script writing has gone on here.

The lighting and photography are at least up to par, whether out of doors in the sunshine of a race track or indoors, in the dismal dump Roy lives in, the salmon-colored murk of his walls, lamps, and furniture and the clown portraits on black velvet. The score is based on an ironic tinkling oompah tune," although it turns emphatically dramatic when the situation calls for it, and it neatly sidesteps the conventions of the genre.

Watch this if you have the chance. You'll think about it for some time afterward, the way I thought about that blow in the ring.
61 out of 80 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
8/10
Enjoyable but imperfect
Mike Keating15 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The Grifters sees John Cusack play Roy Dillon, a grifter whose loyalties are split between his con-artist girlfriend (Annette Bening) and his estranged mother (Anjelica Huston) in a tangled web of deceit with bloody consequences.

Cusack puts in a good performance as the grifter, playing the short con, making money from people wherever he can, whilst trying to avoid being seduced into the long con by Myra (Bening), while also trying to resolve a bizarre, almost Oedipal relationship with his estranged mother Lilly (Huston). The slightly neurotic anti-hero with a humorous cool streak is the kind of role he can play in his sleep, and from what i hear is similar to his role in Ice Harvest (2005).

Bening is different. She's more lively than Cusack and certainly sleazier. Her pretty face, slimline figure, and cheerful willingness to strip off hide the vicious deceiver that lies underneath, and you can't help but feel concerned for Cusack as she tries to reel him into her scam.

Huston's performance is however the best of all, and Lilly remains the most complex character in The Grifters. From the moment she's introduced in Cusack's somewhat sparse apartment you can see there's more to this relationship than they let on; there's an obvious sexual tension sustained between the two until the film's climax. The darker side of her comes to light in the film's final third. Threatened on all sides, she becomes an animal fighting for survival, and shows that she will go to any length to get what she needs. Her killing Roy sums this up; while her initial reaction is one of maternal grief, she soon switches back into survival mode and quickly gets out.

The cinematography is fantastic. The Grifters really achieves the noir look thanks to some clever camera work, effective lighting, and somewhat austere scenery. The characters, especially Lilly and Myra, look the part, and you can clearly see the influences here. The score, while not used much, also contributes effectively to create a tense and sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere, but isn't afraid to be loud and dramatic when needs be.

However, The Grifters is not perfect. Despite solid performances, a decent script, and visual effectiveness, it seems to be missing something, and is unfortunately flawed as all good noir characters are. Perhaps it's a little too long, or the script isn't quite good enough, or the tempo is a tad too low...I couldn't put my finger on it.

These small factors don't detract too much from what is otherwise a very good film. Definitely worth watching.
23 out of 28 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
9/10
Anjelica steals the show
movieman_kev4 July 2005
Stephen Frears directs this amazing adaption of a Jim Thompson book, which deals with three grifters (a person who swindles one by means of deception or fraud) who are tied to each other relationship-wise. Roy Dillion (John Cusack) is a small town grifter recuperating after a punch in the stomach for being found cheating. He finds his loyalties torn between his girlfriend and estranged mother (Annette Benning and Anjelica Huston, respectively), both of which are big time high-stakes grifters. This film is tense, exiting, and well-acted, but make no mistake about it, even though Cusack is more or less the main character, this IS Anjelica Huston's movie through and through. Her acting in this seems to shine so brightly and generally be on a higher plateau than either Cusack or Benning can hope to ascend to in the film. One of my favorite movies.

My Grade: A

DVD Extras: Commentary with Director Stephen Frears, Screenwriter Donald Westlake and Actors John Cusack and Angelica Huston; 16 minute Making of featurette; The Jim Thompson Story featurette; Publicity and Production stills); and Trailers for "Serendipity", "High Fidelity", Grosse Point Blank", & "40 Days And 40 Nights"

Eye Candy: The future Mrs. Warren Beatty shows everything
27 out of 35 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Play Nice. Don't Fight.
Chrysanthepop28 January 2009
Frears's 'The Grifters' is a bizarre noir-style disturbing thriller with dark undertones of themes such as despair, greed, incest and murder. Unlike most con thrillers, this one does not focus on tricks. Rather it focuses mainly on the characters. Lilly is in it big and she needs (or wants) money. Roy is frustrated and is in an ambivalent state. Myra, uses her weapon of seduction to have her way...including getting Roy back into the game. Then there's a fourth character, money. Which tangles them into a lethal web resulting in severely extreme consequences. It starts off a little slow as the three lead characters are introduced but the pace picks up in the proceedings. The twists and layers are well done as the viewers move back and forth into hating and liking the characters. The final sequence between Huston and Cusack is among the most unsettling scenes and it was brilliantly executed. Yet, 'The Grifters' is far from my favourite Frears film. I pretty much loved his other movies like 'High Fidelity', 'Dirty Pretty Things', 'Mrs. Hendersen Presents' and so on but I felt this movie lacked something even though I myself am a big sucker for weird movies. The three leads deliver solid performances. Cusack is finely restrained and quite intense. Bening is suitably perky, slutty and malicious. Huston is a knock out as she delivers a chilling performance. The score is quite low key (usually a piano track) except during dramatic sequences. The lighting has been well done. 'The Grifters' is intriguing and quite a departure from the usual con flick. In the end, it leaves an unsettling taste.
12 out of 14 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
9/10
My son is going to be all right. If not, I'll have you killed.
Spikeopath15 November 2014
The Grifters is directed by Stephen Frears and adapted to screenplay by Donald E. Westlake from the novel of the same name written by Jim Thompson. It stars Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening. Music is by Elmer Bernstein and cinematography by Oliver Stapleton.

"The best reason I can think of is that you scare the hell out of me. I have seen women like you before, baby. You're double-tough and you are sharp as a razor, and you get what you want or else; but you don't make it work forever. Sooner or later the lightning hits, and I'm not gonna be around when it hits you"

1990 was a grand year for neo-noir, of the dozen + titles that came out that year, The Grifters sits atop of the pile. A superlative film noir that boasts class on the page and on both sides of he camera. Set in modern day Los Angeles, the story follows three cynical and sly con artists through a psychological fog of bluff, double bluff, pain, misery, manipulations and shattering developments. That the trio consists of a boyfriend, girlfriend and an estranged mother only darkens the seamy waters still further.

Los Angeles positively bristles with a smouldering atmosphere thanks to the work of Frears, Bernstein and Stapleton. Sexual tension is ripe, Westlake's adaptation doing justice to Thompson's novel, while the three leads – and Pat Hingle in super support – are on fire, bringing complex characters vividly to life as they trawl through the devilishly labyrinthine plot, adding biting humour and shallow savagery into the bargain.

A top draw neo-noir that doesn't cut corners or pull its punches, from the split screen opening salvo to the pitch black finale, The Grifters delivers high quality for neo-noir fans. 9/10
5 out of 5 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
10/10
An unacknowleged classic
PatrickH-23 April 1999
When I casually flipped to this film (without even knowing what it was) I at first thought it was an exceptionally good film-noir. You might say the film snuck up on me- I was utterly unprepared for what I was about to see. I was drawn in closer and closer to the tangled web the three characters are stuck in, and utterly mesmerised by the performances. I don't think I have ever been so enthralled by a movie. After the intensely disturbing ending- which is not arbitrary, no matter what some of the reviews complained- I found myself unable to sleep. Rarely does a film have such an effect on me. THE GRIFTERS really does have to be seen to be totally understood; word fail one so easily when discussing great art.
27 out of 39 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
9/10
Riveting-deserved an academy award
triple87 December 2003
Warning: Spoilers
The Grifters, An utterly fascinating film about the world of the Smalltime and Bigtime con, is one of the most riveting films out there.It is a character study of 3 human beings(Cussac,Benning and Huston) who live a life many-most-couldn't even begin to comprehend. This is not just a "good" film, it easily passes into greatness. It's a film that you need to watch keeping your eyes firmly on the screen at all time as its very easy to miss key points and you won't want to miss a thing.

Trying not to give any spoilers here, what can be said is that this movie is not for the faint of heart, there is violence(including 1 vicious scene of torture that I myself had to look away from) and the film is among the darkest I've seen. This doesn't take away from the film at all-this is a lifestyle where violence is constantly bubbling beneath the surface and many emotions are felt while watching this film as the viewer is drawn into the dark world of the grift-as the events unfold and your emotions go from fascination, horror, and a kind of despair and back again you won't be able to take your eyes off the screen-and that is a good thing because every word uttered, every action taken is pivotal to the film.

(MINOR SPOILERS?)

Benning's character and her complete contempt of the world particularly men is broadcast in every action she takes(she laughs uncontrollably while having sex-the laugh of contempt for her lover)-Amazing performance that should have resulted in an academy award.

The relationship between Cusack and Huston is played so well and the two have so much chemistry that it's both fascinating and repelling.

The final scene between them is one of the most shocking I've seen in cinema and will have to be watched VERY carefully to fully understand the final outcome which I myself was a bit confused by.

To be drawn into a world like what these three inhabit-a world where everything and everyone touched is nothing but a means to an end-another game- is the true heartbreak of these people and the world they live in. If you haven't seen this film, see it. It's a piece of stunning cinema that will leave you with much to think about.
7 out of 8 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
9/10
One mean neo-noir (2 minute review)
dvc515919 July 2014
This is one mean movie. It seduces, wraps your arms around you, and they guts you and leaves you stunned. Directed with striking precision and focus by Stephen Frears ("Philomena", "The Queen"), and written by Donald E. Westlake, one of the literary princes of crime fiction, and based off pulp author Jim Thompson's pulpy novel, in a manner so intricate with detail, so hardboiled that it cracks under the weight of each step it takes, one twist of the knife after another.

It's all too good to be true for this neo-noir, even when Martin Scorsese's producing it. Then comes the actors – and my word, are they fantastic in their roles – John Cusack is sly yet undeterred in a role that is a slightly more edgier variation on Humphrey Bogart, with a cross of Lee Marvin, to boot; Annette Bening is simply drop-dead sexy as the woman who thinks she knows it all, yet is a timebomb waiting to explode. The real star of the show is Angelica Huston in a well-deserved Oscar nominated performance, perfectly balancing the ruthless, desperate act with a honest, focused, motherly concern that doesn't feel cliché at all.

Who knew modern day, sunny Los Angeles and Phoenix can be the backdrop of so seedy a neo-noir, perhaps the best since Chinatown? Frears, Huston, Cusack, Bening, Westlake, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton and composer Elmer Bernstein deserve all the praise they can get for creating something so seedy yet starkly beautiful in retrospect.
4 out of 4 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
4/10
uneven,atmospheric but pointless
jimakros28 September 2009
this movie has a dark film noir atmosphere that is somewhat intriguing but there is no plot whatsoever.The 3 main characters are one-dimensional and totally unlikable with various degrees of nastiness.One simply doesn't care what happens to them.One expects for a plot to develop at some point,like a scheme or something but it never does.We just get more of the same nasty attitude until some completely needless and superficial ending.Huston and Benning do the best they can with the material.There are movies about con artists that don't bother very much with character development but the good ones have some plot going and especially concentrate on smart con tactics,this movie does neither.The characters are too dumb to impress anyone and too nasty for anyone to care.Boring and wildly overrated.
6 out of 7 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Juicy piece of neo-noir
george.schmidt24 April 2003
THE GRIFTERS (1990) ***1/2 John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening, Pat Hingle, J.T. Walsh, Charles Napier. Donald Westlake's slick, serpentine screenplay adaptation of noir author Jim Thompson's novel offers up a juicy, ripe slice of pulp fiction with hip Cusack a slick con artist strictly small time, Huston as his duplicitous, estranged Mobbed up mother on the take and Bening as his slinky gal pal with a few cards up her collective sleeve.

Excellently executed in the rhythms of a perfectly coiled con game about to be sprung with slick precision thanks to fine acting all around and a jolting climax thanks to a steady helm by director Stephen Frears.
15 out of 23 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
7/10
From another era.
Rockwell_Cronenberg2 February 2012
Man, talk about a slow-burn. Going into The Grifters I was expecting a slick and quick-paced con thriller, but what I got was something much darker and much more absorbing. Director Stephen Frears, working off a script by Donald Westlake (adapted from the Jim Thompson novel) lets these characters get established before they start to bring us into the tangled web they are all weaving.

Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is a con man pulling small jobs every day to slowly build up his savings, while his girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening) is doing anything she can to get by and his mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) is working on a long play of her own. The tagline of "Who's conning who?" always makes me roll my eyes, but it's actually an accurate portrayal here, as these three play each other back and forth, while the film itself is pulling the veil over the audience.

The Grifters is a brooding noir that throws back a lot to the '40s and it's Hitchcock roots, including some direct homages that feel appropriate for the story rather than cheap rip-offs. The film delves into some potentially melodramatic moments at times, but Frears is able to keep things in tune with it's seething roots as opposed to letting things get too theatrical.

All three actors are working at top form here; Cusack was just starting to break out and this role should really be considered more among the best of his career, Huston steals the show in every scene and Bening (someone I've always despised) is seductive and very compelling. I thought that Bening was phoning it in a bit at first, but as more is revealed about the character you realize that she's conning herself as much as she is everyone else. Frears crafts this one with a great tone that the actors play into very well, with some powerful sexual undertones and a dynamite finale.
3 out of 3 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
8/10
Dangerous People With Desperate Lives
seymourblack-18 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Con artists are a special breed. They need to be very good at what they do to be successful and then have to be equally quick on their feet to avoid their victims' revenge. What also becomes very clear in "The Grifters" is that these people lead desperate lives. They inhabit a world of treachery and deceit in which no-one can be trusted and the level of danger under which they operate grows in direct proportion to the scale of the scams they're involved in and the length of time that they're in the business. It's also evident that the mindset that they have to adopt in order to prosper makes them unable to change the course of their lives and this in turn determines their ultimate fate.

"The Grifters" is a dark thriller which focuses on the conflict which develops between three con artists who already lead dangerous lives but then start to use their professional skills against each other with tragic consequences.

Roy Dillon (John Cusack) pulls "short cons" with a certain amount of success but things go wrong for him when he ends up in hospital with internal bleeding after having been hit so hard by one of his victims that the injury nearly kills him. At the hospital, his estranged mother Lilly (Anjelica Houston) who advises him to give up "the grift" and his girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening) meet and take an immediate dislike to each other.

Lilly works for a bookie called Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle) and tactically places bets at racetracks in order to reduce the odds on certain runners and protect her boss from suffering any substantial losses. Unfortunately, when she visited her injured son, it made her late for a race meeting and the result of one of the races led to Bobo losing a great deal of money. At the end of a terrifying meeting with him, Bobo burns her hand with a cigar.

Myra is an experienced "roper" who's previously worked on elaborate corporate scams and when necessary uses sex instead of money to pay her rent. She needs a partner for a "long con" that she's planning and wants to recruit Roy but he's not interested. He's afraid that she might double cross him and is also reluctant because he'd been advised by his mentor that long cons are too risky and could lead to a jail sentence. Myra blames Roy's mother for his decision and takes revenge by making sure that Bobo gets to know about the money that Lilly's been habitually skimming from him throughout their association. When Lilly's tipped off, she makes a run for it but Myra follows seeking her own violent form of revenge.

Donald E Westlake's Oscar nominated screen adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel is one of the film's main strengths. Its tone is just right and the dialogue is often sarcastic and cutting. Its other major asset is the quality of the acting which is of the highest order throughout.

Anjelica Houston as Lilly portrays her character's normally tough and ruthless behaviour very convincingly but is also equally adept at conveying her vulnerability when threatened and also the sheer intensity of her distress in a memorably tragic scene near the end of the movie.

John Cusack plays Lilly's son as a sympathetic character who knows his own limitations and is also very suspicious of both Lilly and Myra. Annette Bening seems to revel in her role as the completely amoral Myra who is extremely deceitful and dangerous. She'll do anything to achieve her goals and actually derives a mischievous pleasure from her evil actions.

When the conflict develops between Lilly and Myra, Roy's appalled by the actions of them both and recognises that as a criminal he's not in the same league. Lilly betrays Bobo and Roy, Myra betrays Lilly and both women show their readiness to kill each other.

"The Grifters" with its sometimes disturbing themes, desperate characters and great moments of tension is a drama which is thoroughly absorbing and also extremely powerful.
3 out of 3 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
9/10
Bleak neo-noir
timmy_5011 May 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Con artists (here referred to as grifters) are a popular character type in films. This is somewhat logical as film-making itself is something of a con: like any mark, the viewer has to react a certain way for the scheme/plot to work. The major difference between The Grifters and other films about con artists is the lack of a regular mark: every major character in the film is a grifter and each one always seems to have some plan to manipulate the others while simultaneously maintaining a state of hyper-vigilance to avoid becoming a victim himself. This means that the viewer is also hyper-vigilant and always expecting some complicated scheme to suddenly fall into place. The great part of this film is that this never happens: the fact is that none of these people really has a big plan. Instead they all just distrust each other and steadily become miserable even though they ought to be comforting each other, especially since two of the three main characters are blood relatives. What we're left with is one of the darkest of all neo-noirs. Ultimately the film manages to shock the viewer because the expected deus ex machina experience that ties everything together in a neatly arranged package of destiny fulfillment and narrative closure isn't only absent but altogether unformed because the world of this film is one ruled by the chaos of chance.

The film is also impeccable from a technical standpoint: the visuals are carried off really well and the acting is spot on.
3 out of 3 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
I want to keep my teeth.
Andy (film-critic)12 June 2005
To me, The Grifters reminded me of a plain cheese sandwich. While you specifically order the sandwich for the "cheese" element, without the bread there would be no sandwich at all. When you take a bite, the softness and delicate nature of the bread will give you your first impressions of the rest of the sandwich. It is the first and last thing you taste, so it needs to remain consistent, tasty, and fresh. The Grifters was the bread to your average sandwich. The beginning and end of this film was innovative and creative as was the darkly depressing ending, just like a slice of fresh bread, but the center of the film left much to be desired. The center of the film ruined the entire cinematic experience due to its lack of direction, consistently poor filler, and sub-par feeling that this wasn't the best cheese sandwich ever made, but instead just one created for the masses. It was disappointing to see this film implode from the inside, but one cannot shake those breathtaking moments that anchored this film out of their mind. Director Frears did a decent job, but I think that if Scorsese would have helmed this project, it would have been something entirely different … and enjoyable.

One of my major concerns with this film was the acting. Here we have this gritty, pulp-ish film that really needed to have some powerhouse actors ensuring that we see this darkness from our couches, but instead it seemed like none of the main cast was giving their full potential. I had trouble with Cusack because of his 80s comedy roots. He was my major issue with the film Eight Men Out, and a big element in this one. He just cannot seem to release that raw emotion that takes you away from Cusack the actor and immerses you deeply into the life of Roy Dillon. For the entire film, I kept seeing Cusack (a la Better off Dead…) instead of the powerful character he was supposed to be. The same can be said for the other actors as well. While I do believe that Huston was the stand out player in this film, she wasn't spectacular. Her character was too underdeveloped for us to really have a handle on her issues. I felt no emotion for her when she was having trouble with the mob because I knew nothing of her history. It was assumed, and that is where Frears tumbled this film. Bening, well, was a naked Bening. She spent more time without clothes than really showing us her intellect behind grifting. I realize that nudity was her superpower, but this was a character driven film, and these characters needed more development, more emotion, and more substance than what was presented.

The story seemed choppy to me. While, again, I will state that the beginning segment and ending climax were superbly designed, the rest of the film jumped from one place to another giving us less and less per each jump. It was as if Frears had extra time in his film and needed to fill it with whatever he could to pass the time. I would have loved to see more time with Dillon's mentor, more between Lilly and Bobo, and several more scenes with Myra to fully explain how she fell into this picture. Frears spent too much time filling holes with scenes that were fun, but not poignant. This ultimately hurt the film in the long run because by the end, we didn't care. An apathetic viewer proves that you have lost the battle.

Finally, the element that completely caught me off guard was the mother/son combination that Frears did incorporate well into the story. At first, I thought this was going to be a film about a big grift that would tear down our characters one by one with disgust and distrust, but instead Frears changed it to this wild dynamic between Cusack and Huston. Their chemistry together was decent. While some moments felt like reading was difficult for the two, other moments seemed to send electricity through the air. Frears developed the idea that the vicious circle of life does exist and this mother/son combination is living proof. Roy becomes what Lilly tried to leave him out of, and even falls for a girl that is similar to his mother. Roy is so engulfed in his mother that the ending should come as no surprise when Frears changes themes from mother/son to a near Oedipus complex. It is shivering, but in this film it works. This element kept my eyes focused on the film longer than I should have, but I had to see where Frears was going with this.

Overall, I wasn't impressed. As I bit into this cinematic cheese sandwich, I thought it was going to bring new flavors into my mouth. I was waiting for that surge of intense flavor (which happened on the first and last bit), but throughout the center I was left with nothing more than a couple of slices of cheese that provided me with no fulfillment. The actors could have been stronger. Cusack is still growing and I think that the early 90s were too early for him to try to develop his drama wings. He needed more time, with smaller roles in independent dramas, to fully grasp what he was getting into. I do not see where the awards were needed for this film, but perhaps it is because I had not read the book that this film was based. Maybe it was the darkness surrounding this film, or Bening's nudity, but it just didn't leave that lasting impression on me. Skip it, you will not be disappointed.

Grade: ** out of *****
10 out of 15 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
9/10
Brilliant
Angeneer29 September 1999
Where to start. The witty dialogues, the intriguing plot, the character study, the superb acting from the three protagonists, they all collaborate for a highly entertaining film who will capture you from beginning to end. One of the best films I've ever seen and I wonder why the rating here is so low.
8 out of 12 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
3/10
Aloof grift
gcd7010 August 2007
Renowned British born director Stephen Frears has created a very different drama here with "The Grifters". John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and the gorgeous Annette Bening form an intriguing love triangle and all give good performances.

Unfortunately Donald E Westlake's plot (from Jim Thompson's novel) never quite manages to pull you in and you find yourself watching 'from a distance'. Although "The Grifters" did win critical acclaim, it was obviously too off beat to pull a general audience of any considerable size.

Saturday, October 5, 1991 - Video
4 out of 5 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Triple Braid
tedg22 April 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers herein.

Yes, you already know that the presentation values, the acting and such, is superb in this project. But that is _never_ enough. What we need is some engagement with the story modifying the distance between the screen and your mind. It has to play with that relationship in some way.

The con is the technique of first resort. And there are an amazing variety of ways that the con can be used to confabulate the story: who is defining and telling the story.

The people involved claim that they focus only on the `Greek tragedy for the underclass.' They mention it constantly in the DVD commentary and Scorsese deeply believes it as well.

But they clearly are interested in the metanarrative (as they were in `High Fidelity'). Each of these two women fight for control over what we see. Cusak is only the surrogate.

Only the simplest part of the game is the guessing and the revealed twists.

Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
5 out of 7 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
9/10
Disturbing Neo-Noir
hipshooter23 September 2003
This is an interesting, yet disturbing, piece of neo-noir from director Stephen Frears. Like any good "noir" film, it starts of slow and rather confusing, but wait for it. The story becomes as fascinating as anything Frears has directed in the past. The multiple cons and twists in the film allowed the actors to fully explore the nuances of their characters. Just when you think you think you like a character, they turn on you, like they do to each other, but before you know it, you're on their side again. This is a fascinating look at desperate people who resort to evil acts and make it look really necessary. See it!
5 out of 7 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
The things one does for money...unimagineable
robene2419 April 2003
An interesting film. It depicts a lifestyle I have never been aware of. The sexual tension between John Cusack and Angelica Houston was amazing. The ending is indeed surprising and Houston does a good job of displaying her mixed emotions. The criminal element is cold and calculating. It shows you how one can be very detatched if need be for his or her own survival.
5 out of 7 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
2/10
Pointless and filled with unsympathetic characters
mnpollio21 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Critics invented new words to over-praise this melodrama set in the world of con artists. It tries hard to be a modern day film noir, but has neither the depth nor the range to be considered a success.

John Cusack is a small time con artist (or grifter). He has a rocky relationship with his big-time grifter mother Anjelica Huston, who has taken an instant dislike to his floozy girlfriend Annette Bening. Bening is also a grifter and has been prodding Cusack to trade in his small time ways for more big time cons. When the women start a war with each other, Cusack finds himself in the middle.

There are so many things that do not work in this film it is hard to know where to begin. First and foremost, would probably be the depiction of the cons. None of them are especially imaginative or convincing - that is when we can follow them. Huston is depicted as a seasoned con artist and her scams - as well as we can follow it - are at least semi-possible. What is not credible is that an old pro like herself would in turn be scamming her boss - organized crime - in such a stupid way that is so easy to uncover. Given that this development sets the action of the latter part of the film in motion, we need to believe that Huston is capable of this degree of stupidity and it just does not fit right with her icy, manipulative character. Cusack's cons are neither entertaining or especially memorable. And Bening's cons basically revolve around her stripping and having sex with anything that moves...that's it. We are supposed to believe that beneath her squeaky voice and dumb blond demeanor that she is really a smart cookie, but her cons require no intelligence and basically require her to act like a tart - end of story. For a film centering on cons, one would think the film could do better.

We need some reason to be embroiled in these people. None of them are especially interesting in themselves. Huston is all tough bravado as some kind of insidious dark Madonna, but she is not particularly compelling and never sympathetic. When her boss threatens to beat her to death, Huston's odd choice to suddenly give her character a stutter to indicate fright seems a showy affectation applied by an actress rather than genuine fear experienced by someone afraid to die. Bening never progresses her character beyond that of a rather dim bimbo, who throws a hissy fit when she doesn't get her way. She tries to instigate Huston's death and then tries to assassinate her herself based almost solely on the fact that Huston indicated her disdain of her dating her son. Her reactions seem just a bit out of proportion, even within the parameters of film noir, where emotions are allowed to be a bit heightened.

Also, the casting of Cusack is a misfire. He comes off as such a lightweight here. He is not convincing as a con artist and he never seems a match for the women in the film. His romantic pairing with Bening elicits no sparks - acting-wise or sexually. The extended sequence where the fully clothed Cusack hungrily chases a fully naked Bening around the room saying naughty things to her before throwing her over his shoulder so that her bare butt gets the kind of camera treatment that actresses used to demand for their good sides generates more derisive titters than heat. Additionally, some of the latter moments in the film try to exploit some latent incestuous notes that are supposed to be present between Cusack and Huston. The problem is that we sense no such thing before the film pulls such a suggestion out of its butt crack. Worse, when the film explicitly directs us to look for these hints, Cusack's performance still doesn't convey them. Cusack seems completely incapable of generating chemistry with either actress and lacks the hard edge required for a career con artist.

The final confrontation in the film does feature a moment of unexpected, shocking violence. Unfortunately, while I was momentarily surprised, it had no lasting emotional impact on me whatsoever. This is probably due to the fact that the characters in this melodrama seem more like plot contrivances that are moved around at the behest of scene directions than actual living beings that interact organically. I would also be remiss in not noting that the final shots in the film of a character descending in an elevator seem a direct rip-off of the final moments from The Maltese Falcon - a far better production that this film will never be confused with.
7 out of 11 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
loading
An error has occured. Please try again.

See also

Awards | FAQ | User Ratings | External Reviews | Metacritic Reviews