Review: The Grifters (1990)

The Grifters


Stephen Frears
Donald E. Westlake (Novel: Jim Thompson)
110 min.
Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening
MPAA Rating

Buy on DVD



Source Material

A grifter is someone who trades on their charm and ability to lie or deceive to convince others to give them money or steal it. Grifters have frequently been painted to be clever, self-confident tricksters, but Stephen Frears’ The Grifters refuses to play the game.

John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening star in this frank and sometimes gruesome look at three grifters on the edge of obscurity, struggling to succeed where they once flourished. Cusack plays Roy Dillon, a sleight-of-hand master whose youth attemptin to learn the art of the steal left him blunted to reality, always believing he could somehow trick his way out of any situation. When we meet up with Roy, he’s attempted once successfully to make a quick switch of a $20 bill for a ten, getting change for a twenty in return instead of a $10. The con doesn’t work so well at the next bar and he staggers home with internal injuries from a baseball bat to the stomach.

Always looking for her next big con, Roy’s mother Lilly (Huston) hears of her son’s anguish and takes him to the hospital. She has been working for a racetrack gangster for some time, a situation Roy disapproves of. She takes parts of his winnings and stashes them in her trunk before giving him the rest. She and Roy have multiple arguments, each believing they understand the business better than the other, but seldom understanding that they are equally inconsequential.

The third of the film’s titular grifters is a young hustler who has glommed onto Roy as her boyfriend. Whether she actually loves him or not doesn’t seem to matter to Roy. He likes having her on his arm even if he believes she’ll one day betray him. It’s yet another wedge between mother and son that defines much of the film’s tension.

With any film on the subject, you expect some grand con game to develop where you’re rooting for Roy and Lilly Dillon, and Myra Langtry (Bening) to be a part of and successfully execute some grand grift. Yet, as the film briskly reaches its mid-point, there’s no question you’re watching a different kind of film. This is about the dark underside of the business, a dangerous world where lies and treachery backfire more often than succeed. Myra is the only character who has had any measure of success after running a long con with an ex-boyfriend of hers who she claims taught her everything. Explained in flashback, we see how she interacts with the “best in the business” and it almost seems honest, then you remember who she is and realize it may all be a falsehood.

Frears doesn’t often dally on unnecessary exposition. As director, he guides his cast through a delicate web of interpersonal interaction that culminates in some surprising twists. These are characters you somewhat like, but despise at the same time. They are vicious, cowardly, smug. Frears shows us that these are no pinnacles of virtue and are not deserving of praise or support. You don’t necessarily want them to succeed.

The little appreciation you find for each of the characters comes out of the convincing portrayals of Cusack, Huston and Bening. Huston’s talent was evident long before she took on the role of Lilly Dillon in The Grifters. As the youngest generation of the legendary Hollywood Huston family (father John was a prominent director and Walter, her grandfather, was a well known actor), there was little doubt she’d be up to the challenge, but that doesn’t prevent her from impressing you with each new turn. Unlike the cold, calculating Prizzi in her father’s Oscar-winning Prizzi’s Honor, here she has a subtle vulnerability. Her confidence has been damaged by her long career as a grifter, but when her son is in danger, she pushes aside façade and acts like you would expect a normal human should. Yet, there’s always a twinkle of dishonesty that keeps the audience wondering just how far she will fall in order to survive.

Cusack, in one of his finest performances, makes Roy the most comfortable character for the audience. In spite of his feigned bravado, you is as susceptible to fault as his mother. Like her, he keeps a passive face as his life crumbles around him hoping that those he meets will have confidence that he’ll rise again to the top of the game. Audiences have long underrated his capabilities, but he’s always had a promising talent that is on full display here. While the small moments are signifcant achievements, it’s when he’s standing toe-to-toe with the powerful Huston that we see just how strong an actor he is.

Having posted three lackluster big screen efforts before The Grifters, Annette Bening wasn’t exactly a star. That designation wouldn’t come for many years, but this film helped launch her career as a serious actress. She received her first Oscar nomination for this performance alongside Huston. While not as informed as her co-stars’ performance, there’s a confidence in Myra that displays a burgeoning talent. Although she has the most superficial character in the piece, she gives it a layer of depth that otherwise might have been swallowed by the film.

The Grifters finds itself somewhere between gangster epic and heist film. It doesn’t have the fast-paced twisty nature of a bank robbery, nor the elegiac grandeur of a Godfather. The subtlety and personal nature of the film gives the audience perhaps the most honest glimpse at real con men that they are going to get from studios who are attracted more to artifice and popularity than intimacy.
Review Written
September 7, 2011

1 Comment

Add a Comment
  1. Such a superb movie. I really adore films like this that find the time for terrific character roles, like J.T. Walsh, Pat Hingle and Charles Napier. Great review!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.