Directed by Stephen Frears (1990)
by Hunter Bush
The Grifters is a fantastic and subdued movie about liars, adapted from the book by Jim Thompson, a crime / noir writer posthumously called “the Dimestore Dostoevsky.” I don’t remember when I first saw it but I’ve always held it in high regard, while simultaneously finding it incredibly hard to explain exactly why. The performances are great: subtle and seething and alluring but despite being a movie where the three leads are con artists there’s no ‘Big Heist,’ no ‘Big Scam.’ It’s a movie about the relationships between these three people, the lies they tell and where that leads them.
We’re introduced to all three mains in the opening sequence via a triple split-screen which works as the movie’s own grift by showing us just enough that we think we know what’s going on. Lilly (Anjelica Huston) is running an odds-lowering scam at a horse track, Roy (John Cusack) is short-conning bartenders and patrons out of a couple bucks here and there and Myra (Annette Bening) is trying to pass off fake jewelry to Stephen Tobolowsky before resorting to just sleeping with him. By showing us these three simultaneously (at just after the four minute mark, they all stop outside of the doors they are about to enter and look around in synchronization) director Stephen Frears is allowing us to think that they’re all in cahoots with one another, like a leaner Ocean’s Eleven. This, like so much in this movie, is a lie and as with most lies, especially in film where there is a limit to the run time, the truth starts to eek out little by little.
We come to find that Lilly works for a well-connected bookie named Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle) and that she’s skimming a little off the top of her “earnings” for herself. She is also Roy’s estranged mother. Roy is dating (?) Myra though neither knows the other is a grifter. In grifting, there are two types of scams: The Long Con and The Short Con. The names refer to the amount of time they take to correctly pull off, which is, ideally, a direct corollary to how lucrative the payout at the end is for the con-man (or woman). Roy is on The Short Con, as is Myra (right now) and Lilly is running The Long Con for Bobo (the grifter equivalent of a day job). They are all successful to varying degrees. Roy and Lilly each have a secret cash stockpile and Myra seemingly could pay her rent but when she gives her landlord the choice between “the lady or the loot,” he never picks the loot.
Let’s talk about the lies. This movie is lousy with ‘em. Obviously the assorted grifters are lying as a profession. That’s lying to other people, and that’s a given. On top of that, they’re lying to each other. When Bobo sends Lilly to a racetrack near-ish to Roy’s hotel, she decides to drop in though they haven’t seen each other in eight years. Lilly can tell Roy is on the grift though he keeps denying it, claiming to be a salesman. He does the same later after Myra catches him scamming sailors (perennial John Cusack best bud Jeremy Piven among them) with a magnetic dice gag and she proposes that they team up.
We learn through Myra’s backstory that she used to be partnered with a fearless con-man named Cole Langley (J.T. Walsh) running serious, big money Long Cons until Cole had a breakdown and had to be institutionalized. Since then Myra has been Short Conning, looking for a new partner. Roy turns her down because he thinks she’ll end up scamming him; when all you do is lie you can’t really trust anyone, especially not another liar. Thing is, I don’t even think Myra believes Roy is the right partner. She’s lying to herself. Roy is too, telling Lilly late in the film that he can “quit (grifting) any time he wants.” We all know that’s not true as soon as he says it, but if you’ve never seen this movie before, you may not know exactly how true it is.
I will not be spoiling this movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, because I really think it should be experienced with no foreknowledge. I mentioned above that there’s no Big Heist moment, there are also no car chases, no shootouts. The film isn’t entirely devoid of violence, but from the film’s handful of violent instances most happen offscreen or even just out of the frame, leaving us witnessing only the most important ones. In that way it’s very much like a stage play and the performances draw as much from that type of acting, using body language as much as dialogue or facial expression to convey meaning (especially Cusack who keeps Roy’s emotions locked down in a way that makes him feel like a ticking bomb).
This movie has no twist ending, yet it rewards repeat viewings with a deeper understanding of who the characters are and why they do what they do, which is a rare thing.