By Joe Hammerschmidt
Let a lesson be learned in the following write-up, or rather two: 1. Leave unattended bags on any form of public transit to the professional authorities, as one can never expect what it may lead to. And 2. Never underestimate the fury of French actress Isabelle Huppert. She may not be as well-regarded to American audiences just yet, even after noticeable roles in Amour, Things to Come, and Elle (for which her Oscar nomination was rather overlooked by many; particularly and regrettably, me). Finally, working with Irish-born thriller master Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), the stateside mainstream may have the widest opportunity to celebrate, if not just speak fondly of her fiendish, near-sadistic stage presence, as the troubled, disturbed, brilliant Greta.
Time may very well have been on our side; a performance like hers was worth waiting for this early in the year. But that same patience can’t quite apply to Jordan’s script, co-written with Ray Wright (The Crazies). It all starts rather slowly, on a New York subway, while leaving little footnotes that do thankfully build up to a handsome reward of thematic riches in the third act. It’s all somewhat typical for a psych thriller until we’re buried in a little deeper. For Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young waitress in the big city still coming to terms with the loss of her mother, she sees Greta, a lonely piano teacher, as a true confidant from the moment they meet after a lost handbag is returned. Greta, in return, finds an opportunity to play the motherly influence again, following a messy estrangement with her only daughter.
Frances’s roommate Erica (The Guest’s Maika Monroe) does not buy the initial camaraderie, warning her of the inherent danger of befriending a stranger so casually. Once those fears are somehow proven to be justified, Frances does make every attempt to cut Greta off from any form of contact; warnings only made clearer by just how long the NYPD could take to a review a simple restraining order case if one isn’t a celebrity or actively running for political office. Simply put, the more Frances attempts to distance herself, the more ravenous her new stalker will become. Any manner of self-awareness, particularly on the unashamedly enjoyable Monroe’s part may not save them from the critical, painful, almost decadent back-and-forth which ensues.
To reach the point where the psyche is actually bent out of shape, that takes a little time, perhaps half of the brisk 98 minutes needed. Somewhat of a slow roll, yet not to an annoying level that we couldn’t be convinced by the motives in play. We still see Moretz effectively writhing in agony; it’s not quite her best work in recent memory, that still goes to The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which deserves a watch if one hasn’t done so already. Her duality in both bravery and submissive cowardice proves effortlessly finite, I’d be surprised if it didn’t stick with me the same way her polar opposite did.
With that, I’m bound to spend the remainder of this review praising Mademoiselle Huppert. While the film wastes valuable time building up her story, and Jordan pushes with more of a laidback approach to his own story, revealing the motives far too early (literally 20 minutes in), our Greta really makes up for the slight bit of slack, pushing the intimate boundary between friend and a more hostile competitor. Where one’s mother could be their best friend, as she so rightly reiterates like many a common thread Jordan leaves scattered on the floor, Huppert graciously picks each one up to eventually dance over it.
I could sense a rather joyful aire hiding her tightening coil of purest menace, burrowing up from the ground at just the right moment, be it quiet, hysterical, and even musical. She emphasizes the lighter fare of Franz Liszt in her home, which she plays quite fluently on camera, elevating her physicality, and brightening her cheery mask ever higher. Coupled with the conservative eye-candy captures and handheld close-ups crafted by DoP Seamus McGarvey (The Greatest Showman), and thrown in with a randomly appreciated Colm Feore giving Frances some form of calm as her caring father, it all somehow fits, but it just takes a little effort to make it so.
Again, patience is key, and that may not be so reasonable at first, but once Huppert hits a certain nervous groove on screen, we’re locked in, to the point where I truly wanted more out of her, at the least another 20 minutes before an ultimate final ending. A sequel isn’t necessary unless more over-the-top material can be granted. As it is, Greta does end rather abruptly, much like the nightmare-ish world Jordan pursues with utter indemnity, determined to leave the audience on their toes, if the vocal reactions heard in my screening crowd are enough of an indicator. That is, until it is time to wake up, hopefully with a concentrated shot of creative inspiration. It’s a cluttered piece of rambunctious silliness, not entirely taking itself seriously, but still leaving enough space to really explode in fury-laden prose. Take Huppert out of the equation, and the whole feature loses itself in its own muddling. Leave her in, and you still have a sharply written thriller keen on raising both eyebrows and stomachs, just barely. I did leave smiling thanks to her, and those who read this, hopefully, the same could be enough to dive headfirst into a film that could’ve worked better, even with the right casting involved, but as is still gives off plenty to be disturbed from. Fair game, and shared popcorn, nonetheless. (C+)
Greta opens in most area theatres this weekend; rated R for some violence and disturbing images; 98 minutes.