Film Review | Greta: Mining those predictable thrills

Though it certainly packs a suspenseful punch in its final act, Neil Jordan’s psychological thriller may be a pill too preposterous and silly to swallow for most

“My friends say I’m like chewing gum… I tend to stick around.” A pretty wonky line of dialogue even when meant as a weak joke, hopelessly cringe-worthy if said with any measure of seriousness. Sadly, co-writer/director Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire, Breakfast on Pluto, The Borgias) has the seemingly perennial ingenue Chloë Grace Moretz  intone that precise arrangement of words in a definitive, hammy variant of the latter. What’s doubly sad is that an otherwise thrillingly constructed psychological thriller is characterised by much of the same throughout: a po-face when trenchant humour would have been welcome, and flat telegraphing when haunting ambiguity would have not only been nice, but absolutely necessary.

Then again, Jordan is no stranger to camp. Like an Irish version of Joel Schumacher – that equally mercurial, unapologetic purveyor of glossy sleaze-pulp designed to make just enough money to exist in the scummier peripheries of mainstream Hollywood – his is an eclectic filmography that relishes in entertainment animated by a dash of quease-inducing cruelty. Moving away from his overarching predilection for costumed period fare, with Greta he mines a vein he had first tapped in the scaled-back and creepier In Dreams (1999).

And so, Moretz’s Frances McCullen is speedily marshalled into a treadmill of doom like a convenient lamb to the slaughter. While still grieving the loss of her recently-deceased mother – keeping her successful businessman father (Colm Feore) at arm’s length – the young woman moves to New York to help a friend – the seemingly vapid but otherwise well-meaning Erica (It Follows’ Maika Monroe) – “break in” a fancy loft apartment recently purchased by her father, working as a waitress all the while.

While riding the subway back home one day, she spots an abandoned handbag and, despite Erica’s protestations – “This is Manhattan: you find a bag, you call bomb squad!” – takes it back to its owner; a reclusive but charming French widow, Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert). Slowly but surely, a relationship starts up between the two… and I’m pretty sure you don’t need me to tell you that things don’t quite go Frances’ way from there.

Working off a script co-written with Ray Wright, Jordan succeeds in concocting a thriller that is effective on a surface level but is also so derivative and by-the-numbers that it threatens to kill its own suspense before it’s even allowed to ramp up.

It’s awkward to use ‘TV movie’ as a pejorative now that we’re living through the small-screen revolution, but the pulpy stranger-danger stylings that Jordan dives into with such relish can’t help but recall similarly soapy material from a just-slightly-byone era.

Luckily, Huppert is on hand to rescue the project, as she’s wont to do. An actress whose accomplished backlog has made her something of an expert in subdued menace, she earns her titular character role by crafting a monster who casts a shadow worth trembling under. But as the cliches tumble over each other with ludicrous inevitability, it begins to feel as though even Huppert is going through the motions, enchanting-enough as they may be. Greta is soon revealed to be a retired piano teacher – a canny reference thrown in for the film buffs, but also an unwelcome reminder of similarly uneasy but otherwise richer forays from the French actress.

Still, despite the expected trajectory of the overall proceedings and the tin-eared dialogue all throughout – how much finer would this all have been if given a modicum of genuine, Polanski-like dread! – the final act is allowed to unleash the sensationalism that just about lay dormant within all the while, and it makes for a truly nail-biting conclusion that all but justifies any preceding clunkiness.

And hey, anyone with the balls to let that chewing-gum line make it to final edit deserves some kind of kudos…

The verdict

While its external trappings promise a stylishly haunting good time, Greta is hampered by a hammy, tin-eared script that never allows any genuine dread to play out, effectively reducing it to a psychological thriller that’s embarrassingly low on genuine psychological hooks. Still, it all ramps up to a can’t-look-away conclusion and Isabelle Huppert unsurprisingly makes for a memorable psychopath. 

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