The Grifters (1990)
Written by Donald E. Westlake
Directed by Stephen Frears
The Grifters by Jim Thompson was published in 1963, and while the film adaptation takes place in contemporary 1990s Los Angeles, director Stephen Frears chooses to treat some aspects as anachronistic. The story features a character archetype that seems to fascinate moviegoers indefinitely, the conman or, in this case, the conman and the conwomen in his life. We love to see how duplicitous tricksters trick each other, often leading to tragic outcomes, where even the “winner” feels broken and lost because they’ve played their grift on someone important in their lives.
Roy Dillon (John Cusack) runs a small-time grift, faking out bartenders with twenties switched for tens and using weighted dice to win money off of dupes. He was taught by a veteran that the small con was the safe path, and the long conners always get caught. Two women make up his life, Myra Langtry (Annette Benning) and Lily (Anjelica Houston). Myra is a charming little sexpot who knows precisely what she can use her body to acquire, which is almost everything. Lily is Roy’s estranged mother, a conwoman herself, working for a mob boss to fix the odds on horse races. Lily finds Roy after one of his schemes goes south, and he ends up internally bleeding from a baseball bat to the gut. Myra, one to always want the score, starts to size Lily up and realizes she’s found a big fish in Roy’s mother.
Frears creates a very engaging atmosphere, things never get as dark as I wish they could have, but it isn’t a sunshine & lollipops presentation. Each character is given screentime away from the others to allow them to develop, made clear in the opening sequence where we’re delivered a triptych of characters each about to perform their con. Lily has removed all the charisma and charm associated with the scam, she is mechanical, given the name of the horses and the cash. All she has to do is bet and watch the odds; if they change, she sits back, if they don’t, she keeps betting. Her boss even acknowledges that she should skim a little off the top; otherwise, she’d be a patsy, and he wouldn’t trust her.
Myra appears small-time, but in the second act, we get an extensive flashback that features character actors J.T. Walsh and Charles Napier. It’s revealed Myra took part in a complicated long con swindling wealthy Texas oilmen that exercised her dramatic chops. Myra is hungry to return to that life, and she is also genuinely in love with Roy. She wants them to be the con couple of her dreams, but he sticks strictly to small-time grifts. Roy is comfortable, and he just wants to survive.
The most interesting person here is definitely Lily, only fourteen when she had Roy so that no one recognizes her as his mother until she informs them. There is Oedipal tension between the mother and son that has a shocking culmination in the third act. I enjoyed that we didn’t get a deep back history to Lily so that we have to fill in the blanks with what we assume about her. But all those assumptions could be wrong. One thing we do learn is that Lily is under the heel of men; even as a slick con artist, if she crosses the line just a little, there is a brutal physical response. She has a strange relationship with her son wanting to be his mother, as seen with how she rushes to get him medical help and attends his bedside. But Lily is also in an intense competition with him, mocking him for going to for the small fish, and also uses lust as a way to manipulate him. The life Lily has led has erased what we recognize as humanity, and in the final moments of this movie, we see how completely broken she is, gathering up wads of bloody cash and moving on to the next hustle.