How have I never seen the Grifters? Stephen Frears, Donald Westlake, Martin Scorsese and a perfect cast (John Cusack, Anmette Benning and Anjelica Huston) in a pitch black neo-noir based on a lean, mean novel by Jim Thompson? Yeah well, it’s just another one that got away. What I love about this movie is how it sets up the rules very simply; these people are con artists, no two ways about it. It’s never going to ask you to care about them, just be intrigued by what they do and how they do it. Whenever any of them are at risk at being pulled closer to another, they have to take a step back and consider what they’re feeling, what they’re doing, and then reject whatever possibility of real human affection they might believe exists. Early on, Huston visits her son Cusack (she had him when she was fourteen and didn’t really make a great go of it as a mother) and sizes up his seedy apartment. She takes notice of a couple of horrible looking paintings on his wall and then asks what his game is. She’s taken care of him after a simple con went bad and he got a baseball bat in the gut. She’s reminding him that she’s given him life twice now and she wants in on whatever angle he’s got cooking. He insists that he’s on the up and up but she’s not buying it. “That apartment,” she hisses sarcastically, “those ridiculous paintings?” “I like those paintings,” Cusack answers.
He’s not really lying. The reason he likes them is because they’re what he uses to hide all of his grifter earnings. The pictures are like all of the films characters; hideous to the point of disturbing and filled with nothing but the burning desire to be filled with more money, money that they take from others. It makes sense that these characters would hide the only thing they truly care about in the ugliest space possible. It’s hysterical to watch Houston take care of Cusack after he gets hurt in the con. She pays for his bills and then he pays her back, neither of them willing to engage in a human connection with the other because they can’t allow themselves to feel any kind of intimacy. To allow one to do a favor for the other would be to begin to take the fall. They know the score; as soon as their guard is down they’re at risk of being taken for a sucker. It’s no wonder that the three main characters are all con-artists. It’s not a coincidence. It makes sense that they’re the only ones that are drawn to the other because they detest themselves so much they dare not be surrounded by anyone else. But then again, they dare not have any true feelings for any of their fellow grifters. That road leads to ruin.
This movie isn’t perfect, of course. The sunny Californian cinematography is a nice balance to the nastiness of the story, but the Elmer Bernstein score is far too playful for the material, creating some major dissonance at key points in the plot. The balance between comedy and noir doesn’t always mix well either. Some moments are darkly humorous, but would have worked better if played straight. And as good as Benning is, her character is playing a character and she’s usually playing her rather one note. It makes the few moments she stops behaving like a bimbo all the more powerful, but that doesn’t stop it from being grating from time to time, and needlessly so. Huston and Cusack, however, give flawless performances and their final confrontation is a show stopper. Frears directs with confidence and the script is sharply adapted by noir master Westlake. I’m coming into this one twenty-one years too late, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating it any less.