Vicious games people play

'THE GRIFTERS',

January 25, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'The Grifters'

Starring John Cusack, Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston.

Directed by Stephen Frears.

Released by Miramax.

Rated R.

** 1/2 Grifters are the coyotes on the great plains of crime. They hover at the edges, afraid to go after the really big kills, afraid of the implicit violence in big money stings, but nibbling, scuffling and pawing for the unattended few bucks left over.

Jim Thompson is the poet-laureate of this low-rent moral twilight and Stephen Frears' version of Thompson's "The Grifters" chronicles the vicious games members of this demimonde play upon each other. It comes to the conclusion, depressing enough as it is, that the grift is thicker than blood.

It should be a great movie, given that Frears, in his last film "Dangerous Liaisons," showed an extraordinary relish for the cruel gamesmanship between sexual predators, and that his dark view of the world seems perfectly matched to Thompson's. But, despite arousing considerable activity in the pleasure centers, the movie finally more or less implodes on Thompson's ramshackle plotting, his deep affection for coincidence and his simple ignorance of the way the world works.

The movie is set in a Freudian jungle, as two women compete for the affections of a young man, although neither of them seems to really love him. For his part, he mistrusts both, especially the one who happens to be his mother.

John Cusack plays Roy, with the tiny mouth and innocent face of a child, but he's always looking for a way to trade a nickel for a dime on the theory that dimes more quickly add up to dollars. His grifts are somehow childish -- "I'll give you a dime for every quarter you can balance on end," he tells a sucker, thereby trading 10 dimes for $2.50 in loose change.

So why does a sensational dish like Myra go for him? Frears can't really make us see it, until he finally reveals that Myra, played by Annette Bening, is a grifter herself, and sees in the yet-unformed Roy a chance to work her way up to the big time where she'd once labored as a "sweeper" -- using her beauty as a sucker-magnet for a legendary con man. But she's opposed in her quest for her dominion of Roy's heart and glands by Lily (Anjelica Huston) who is not only a mere 14 years older than Roy but also his mommy.

Lily's in the grift, too; she's some kind of traveling odds-twiddler for a Baltimore bookie named Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle Jr.), and it's not to the movie's credit that it can never quite explain how Lily makes a living by thumping money against long shots in order to lower the odds and create a window of opportunity for the hotshot Mafia guy back in Baltimore (a misconception, actually; Baltimore is not a big organized crime city).

The races bring Lily to L.A., where she re-establishes contact with long-lost Roy and takes umbrage at Myra's cheap dominion over him; the two women are like sharks circling a bleeding goat treading water, each trying to lead him in a different direction as he tries to make up his mind between the kinds of lust he feels for each and wonders why he feels dimly that neither really has his own best interests in mind.

All right, why John Cusack? I can't answer; he seems to lack the charisma or the energy that would make him attractive to either woman, including Mom. Cusack's curious dimness does a lot to leach the center from the movie. Bening and Huston, however, are both excellent: Bening's character has a kind of merry self-awareness and mercenary gusto that's very attractive and Huston seems stronger than cast iron or ancient oak.

While it plays on the theme of sexual competition in this kinky neighborhood, "The Grifters" is terrific, particularly as Frears dwells on the incisive nastiness of the characters and the predatory instincts of their calling. But the movie keeps lurching through false starts and down blind alleys, wasting time on characters (like Hingle) who appear vividly, then completely disappear. It's not a plot that grows organically from a single premise, it's not of a piece; rather, it's as if Thompson simply started anew each day, unsure where he'd end up at sunset.

Finally, when it turns violent it turns absurd. One of the primary "gimmicks" just doesn't work, not in this world: It turns on a bullet wound to the face so grievous that the police can't identify the body -- possibly true when Thompson was writing in 1963, but a doubtful proposition in today's era of sophisticated forensics. And it further ends on an accidental killing in a hotel room that is simply ludicrous and cheapens the long movie that comes before it by its arbitrariness.

In the end, you feel that "The Grifters" has conned you.

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