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The Grifters (1990)

by on 2011/03/26

“Grift’s like anything else, Roy. You don’t stand still. You either go up or down. Usually down, sooner or later. “

* * * *

I’ve lived a careful, cautious life of careful, cautious self-sufficiency.

I got good marks in school. I started my first job one day after my final university exam.

Since then, I never been out of work, not even for a single day.

I always paid my own way.

The Grifters is a terrifying, exhilarating, depressing glimpse into another way of life. On the take, dollar-to-dollar living. Preying on the weak, the dumb, the greedy. Doing what you need to survive. Nothing more, nothing less.

Meet greasy, grubby Roy Dillon, played by one my favourite razor-sharp killer geeks John Cusack (Say Anything). Roy has pockets, cuffs and socks stuffed with greasy, grubby dollars.

He’s a short con man, making his money off of naive suckers with quick-hit scams. He trolls around town disguised as a work-a-day salesman making easy money off of “squares.” Cusack as Roy is languid, frosty, in control.

Roy’s signature move was one with a $20 bill and a packed bar. Show the harried bartender a $20 by holding it up and making your order, then give him a $10 instead, netting the change for the $20 and the drink.

Unfortunately for Roy that tried-and-true bit earns him a hard punch in the gut and a near-death experience.

Roy’s mother Lily, played by the divine Ms. Anjelica Huston, is also in the con business, working for a crime boss named Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle). Huston is pure, hard-sculpted cool as Lily. Her only soft spot is (perhaps) for her estranged son.

She even comes over all snarling mother bear when she discovers Roy dying in his apartment and even worse, dating a ditzy, disreputable blonde Myra (Annette Bening).

Myra and Lily take an instantaneous dislike to each other – the way a mongoose and a cobra placed into cardboard box (that is subsequently shaken) might. And really who could blame Lily for not trusting Myra? (Frankly I’ll always sympathize with any character Anjelica Huston plays). Annette Bening spends most of her screen time braless or topless. Bening gives this role, a sharp-as-a-tack floozy, her absolute all.

In fact, Bening’s just a little bit scary in this part. While Myra’s not as supremely scary as Huston, she’s still unnerving. Myra’s speciality is the long con, the elaborate, high-stakes game of deception.

Roy says it best:

“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.”

One by one, the chickens come home to roost for each of these flawed, crooked, hard characters. Directed by Stephen Frears, The Grifters gives us incredible performances, a script that is pure film noir-ese, a terrific soundtrack and settings that are grimly authentic.

I learned a lot of things from this movie. I learned that a punch in the stomach can be fatal – or nearly fatal. I learned that a towel full of oranges can inflict giant bruises but might not cause serious permanent damage.

I also learned that a life of crime might cause you to wind up dead or stuck in a dingy apartment with two sad clown oil paintings on the wall. Or both.

The conclusion of this fascinating tale is like a hard punch in the belt buckle.

 * * * *

110 minutes

R for every revealing inch of a very repeatedly nude Annette Bening and you know, some punching and killing

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