When Female Matchsticks Strike

This Stephen Frear’s film is about three con artists (also called “matchstick men” or “grifters”). There’s Lilly (Anjelica Huston), who works for a bookie, placing bets to change the odds at the track. Her estranged son is Roy Dillon (John Cusack) – a cautious grifter who only plays short cons. His not-so-exclusive girlfriend is the girly Myra (Annette Bening), who once worked long cons with a pro. All of these three characters clash together in interesting ways, although it’s the female players that provide spark to the story’s drama.

“The Grifters” seems to be my kind of movie; it’s been described as a neo-noir film. I always associated the term “noir” with a positive connotation. It’s good stuff (reminiscent of great b&w crime and detective films) but this film seems only stuffed. It felt like I got conned or something. I was pulled in at that start from Elmer Bernstein’s main titles score to the film’s first scene, where the frame is equally divided into three to capture each main character simultaneously. But then, that’s about it.

My gripe is that “The Grifters” lack a slick sense of style. Maybe a moodier cinematography or more experimental screenplay could’ve helped. There’s just something missing or stolen. While the film is tolerable, I wanted to be seduced. I was only tepidly interested in the story. I’ll label it as semi-noir and more of a character-driven Greek tragedy. More or less, the three characters are nice people in sinful careers. I mean, that’s nice and all, but I want more wicked duplicity at work. If there’s any redemption for the movie, it’s the fine acting by the three actors. Albeit I haven’t seen much Huston’s work, this is one of her strongest. Cusack looks so young here and plays his role mentally bruised. But the most surprising performance comes from Annette Bening, who displays assets I’ve never seen before. Still, “The Grifters” manages to steal my attention, but hardly runs away with it.

Grade: B

Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening, Pat Hingle, Henry Jones, J.T. Walsh, and Charles Napier
Screenplay by
Donald Westlake
Directed by
Stephen Frears
Rated R