Director: Neil Jordan
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea
Running Time: 98 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
It's not particularly easy to make an over-the-top suspense thriller like Greta without falling prey to some really dumb decisions for entertainment's sake. That writer/director Neil Jordan sidesteps a lot of them while managing to craft a tight, fairly efficient effort is an accomplishment considering the temptations to take shortcuts that have undermined so many mainstream entries like it. Of course, this isn't to say that dumb decisions aren't sometimes made, but they feel less like screenwriting contrivances than mistakes the lead character would make based upon what we learn of her. But better than that, Jordan has also cast three talented actresses who gamely juggle material that might elicit unintentional laughs in less capable hands.
At the risk of overpraising a film for merely managing to not mess up a good thing or embarrass anyone involved, there's still a great deal to be said for that, and reminding us that it isn't a prerequisite for all Hollywood thrillers to be brain dead. It simmers slowly, before piling on some complications that are pretty ridiculous without being entirely illogical. There are many points where you're sure the script's on the verge of deteriorating into a bad slasher before pulling back to make choices that aren't exactly unpredictable per se, but prove rewarding nonetheless. And in Chloe Moretz, they've found the perfect protagonist, her character's idealism quickly shattered when she lets her guard down, allowing us to join in her deer-in-headlights amazement at the quickly escalating craziness.
Frances McCullen (Moretz) is a young waitress living in New York City with her best friend, Erica Penn (Maika Monroe) while still coping with the death of her mother and strained relationship with her distant, workaholic father. Frequently rejecting Erica's offers to go out and loosen up, one day Frances finds a handbag left behind while riding on the subway. After discovering the bag belongs to a French woman named Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), she finds her address and delivers it in person. Extending her gratitude over coffee, Greta reveals she's a widowed piano teacher with a daughter living and studying in Paris. Soon, Frances begins spending time with this lonely, older woman, even helping her pick out a dog at the shelter.
Despite Erica's warnings that Frances is merely trying to fill the void left by her mother's passing, the two start spending a lot of time together, at least until Frances makes a chilling discovery that causes her to question Greta's true motivations. But when she tries to break it off, the calls and texts from Greta intensify, revealing her to be a seriously sick woman with more problems than Frances could have ever imagined. And she doesn't take rejection lightly, stalking Frances to the point of putting her life, as well as the lives of people she holds closest, in serious peril.
Without reinventing the wheel, Greta carries on the tradition of some of the more successful female-centric stalker films of the 90's such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Misery, despite its narrative or asthetic never really dabbling in horror for its entire running length. Oscar-winner Jordan really takes his time setting everything up, firmly establishing the inner and outer lives of these two very different women who will undoubtedly be locking horns in the second half. The thrills come from watching the legendary Isabelle Hupert slowly unspool her antagonist's psychosis, taking Greta from being nice and harmless, to kooky, to a little clingy, until finally flying off the deep end.
The film is subtle until it isn't, correctly recognizing when to pull the trigger and embrace its craziness. We recognize this absurdity and go with it mainly due to the cativating match-up between Huppert and Moretz, which delivers every time they share the screen, aided by a script that contains clever nuggets like Greta terrorizing Frances and Erica with her flip phone. There comes a point in the story where we're sure we know where it's headed, but it toys with us a bit, keeping the body count almost shockingly low before saving most of its ammunition for an ambitious ending that plays with the roles of terrorists and victims. While still a potboiler that doesn't pretend to offer deep psychological meditation, it does gives its stalked leads a surprising amount of agency for a movie of its kind.
Acting opposite a force of nature in Huppert, Moretz also slowly takes Frances through the various stages of realizing she's in way over her head. Being a nice and naive may not be the most exciting of qualities for a thriller heroine, but we're with her and she's completely believable, as is Maika Monroe, who as Erica initially seems to be embodying the ultimate best friend cliche of airheaded party animal. But becuase of the actress's rising stock, you get the feeling there's more there, and that suspicion pays off, revealing her character to not only be the sole voice of reason, but possibly the film's most memorably relatable. You get the impresion that had Greta exclusively targeted her, it may not have been a fair fight. As a cat-and-mouse game capped with a clever Hitchcockian twist, Greta ends up equaling a little more than the sum of its parts, eventually revealing itself to be an entertaining throwback in the genre.