Let us not kid ourselves – 1990 was the year the academy got it wrong, very wrong. This was the year that an instant classic by one our greatest living directors got stripped of the big prize by a fairly well made western directed by a well respected 80’s actor. Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” with its ambitious tracking shots, -now constantly ripped off- narrative structure and incredible performances lost to Kevin Costner’s earnest, well meaning, sincerely decent “Dances With Wolves”. We all know which film stood the test of time, in fact Scorsese’s classic is still consistently revisited in film schools and is one of the most ripped-off films of the 1990’s and Aughts. Whereas it turns out that Costner’s film -which does have its fair share of fans- is nothing more than a well made western that seemed to come out in the right place and at the right time. To make matters worse, just look at some of the other best picture nominees; “Ghost”?, “The Godfather, Part III”? And as much as I liked Penny Marshall’s “Awakenings” I’d substitute it all 4 of the above mentioned films -including “Dances With Wolves”- to give a Best Picture Nomination to Stephen Frears’ “The Grifters”. In fact “The Grifters” is the one 1990 film that comes closest to achieving the greatness of “Goodfellas”. Honorable mentions would include Barbet Schroder’s “Reversal Of Fortune”, Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands”, Joel Coen’s “Miller’s Crossing”, Charles Burnett’s underrated “To Sleep With Anger” and even David Lynch’s kinky, twisted “Wild At Heart”. ALL of these films were better and more lasting than 4 of the 5 nominated films.
Frears’ film -which includes the best performances of Anjelica Huston and Annette Benning’s careers- is a neo-noir served black. Lots of references to film noirs of the 40’s and plenty of shadows cast from venetian blinds (a noir staple). In Frears’ Los Angeles we look at three tortured, miserable souls that would do anything for the green. It’s money that makes the world go round in Frears’ film. He shows us greed and a pitch black portrayal of the human heart. This kind of subject matter was rather well dissected by the Coen Brothers in “No Country For Old Men” yet “The Grifters” feels just as dark and complicated a movie with Oliver Stapleton’s stark cinematography and source material based on author Jim Thompson’s novel (which he gets a screenplay credit for). The movie provides an unflinching and relentless window into a dark world most of us would rather pretend doesn’t exist – but it does. The characters are subtle and believable; wicked little souls that carry no redeeming value or morals- no conscience. Most of it is so beautifully photographed that it looks like a series of postcards at times YET the feeling you get when watching the film isn’t a pleasant one, this is a movie that means to brutally shake you and that it does.
As much as I loved how Annette Benning brought a sexy, dangerous vibe to the film, the artistic success of “The Grifters” would not come close to the high art it achieves without Anjelica Huston’s career capping performance as Lilly Dillon. Dressed up in blood-red or plain white tight dresses, and with a white perm that looks hair sprayed to a tee, Lilly is a small time crook that fears she has passed over her grifting gift to her son – brilliantly played by John Cusack. I wouldn’t reccomend being caught up in Lilly’s toxic world, but watching it unfurl from afar is a cinematic thrill. Huston’s brilliant performance makes sure were there with her every step of the way. Her goal is to cash in as much as possible, that is more important to her than anything else, including her own son’s life. In fact when things get rough Lilly tries to seduce him in a scene that cannot be described in words and brings a whole new layer to the film’s already constantly peeling onion-like structure. It’s there and then that “The Grifters” turns into an unlikely original. The film’s constant twists and turns cannot prepare you for the seduction or the backstabbingly delicious climax that caps off a truly great film, in fact repeat viewings are a must for the black world Frears’ shapes and molds. After every viewing you come out learning something new about these con artists; their motivations seem more real and their actions even more repugnant. “The Grifters” pulls out a rabbit from the hat and plays with its audiences heads, what more can you ask for in a movie?