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‘Greta’ Simmers but Never Boils

Greta is a taut psychological thriller that is only sometimes taught, hardly ever thrilling, and seems to have learned all it knows about psychology from the back of brochures. In short, it’s not very good. In length, it’s the type of movie that teases you with flashes of ingenuity and competence only to fall back into deathly doldrums.

Neil Jordan, who directed and wrote Greta, is no stranger to dark complicated psychological thrillers. His is a filmography which includes Mona Lisa, Interview With a Vampire, The Crying Game, and others. Subtle tension building and explorations into damaged psyches are something Jordan can do sleepwalking. Unless the exercise involves women and only women, apparently.

Jordan’s Greta would have felt right at home in the ’90s but feels out of place, ill thought out, and at times plain laughable today. Essentially dealing with a young woman Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz) who befriends a mentally unstable woman Greta (Isabelle Huppert). What starts out as a friendship turns into something out of a slasher flick as Greta stalks, drugs, imprisons, and tortures Frances.

I mention the slasher genre because Jordan actually uses tricks straight from the genre’s toolbox. Loud piano chords as doors fling open to reveal a glaring Greta pad the movie’s run time. Not to mention that Greta seems to have the teleportation powers of Jason Voorhees. She is somehow able to travel great distances in short amounts of time without ever breaking a sweat. Not to mention that she can be on one side of the room and then in a flash be on the other even though there is no possible way she could have gotten there.

All of this would be fine, even fun, had Greta at any point understood what it wanted to be or do. It is such a pity the movie never seems to have as much fun as Huppert has throughout the entire movie. At one point after kidnapping Frances, a private eye enters played by Stephen Rea. Like Psycho and Misery before it, Greta understands that any authority figure who comes looking for our hero must die. Except those movies had the decency to at least allow us to get to know the character before they died.

But Greta is so paper thin it doesn’t even care to explore it’s two main characters, so how could it possibly be expected to care about side characters? Frances and her father Chris (Colm Feore) are estranged. The reason is never fully explained. Although we expect it’s because after her mom died, Chris moved on just a little too quickly.

We are left to deduce this mainly from a cryptic phone conversation between the two. A conversation in which the father exclaims, “I’m a good a man, Frances!” To which Frances says, “Now you’re starting to sound like Bill Clinton.” So, I guess he had an affair? Maybe sexually harassed some interns? We never know, and it doesn’t matter because Frances and her Father patch things up halfway through the movie.

Nothing matters in Jordan’s script. Greta’s stint as a nurse at a mental hospital is a nice touch, but again has no real bearing on the character other than she knows how to use a syringe and has access to drugs. Frances has no inner life nor an outer one. We know her mother dies but we never know how recently, how she died, or even what her name was.

The script is bad but not bad enough to help buoy the film during the parts that drag. Frances’ roommate Erica (Maika Monroe) is such a genuinely shallow and awful person it’s a shame she doesn’t have more screen time. Her lines are truly awful. “Did, I just snort crystal meth or did you just agree to go dog shopping with some old lady?”

Erica opens the door and sees a man holding flowers. It’s a moment that leads to her uttering, “If those are mine I’m going to dry hump you for a year.” I admit I am weak and found myself cackling at both the line and the delivery. Lines like these are sadly far and few in between. Monroe does her best, but she is somehow given less to do than either Moretz or Huppert. Monroe’s performance as the shallow, tactless, but caring friend is one of the few highlights of the film. It is refreshing in the fact that is both not too over the top while not at all self-serious.

In contrast, while watching Greta I found myself struck by how out of sync both Moretz and Huppert were. At times it feels as if the two actresses are delivering lines to someone else in a different scene. One scene has the two arguing at a restaurant where Frances works. Frances tells Greta to leave her alone, that she knows she’s been stalking her, and that she will call the police. Yet the two women, though they are side by side, feel as if they are in two separate movies.

It’s an odd sensation to see two great actresses not acting together but rather acting next to each other. Although, shout out to the actress who plays the bartender who is perfectly framed in the background. If acting is listening then this woman is giving the best performance of the year.

Thankfully, by the end, Moretz and Huppert have found their rhythm. But by then it’s too little too late. Jordan can’t seem to decide if he wants the film to be trashy camp or serious commentary. Neither the script or the cinematography comment on anything, so it can’t be the latter. The former can’t be true because it’s only rarely anything remotely resembling fun.

Though from time to time it stumbles into fun. Such as when Greta shows up at the restaurant, again, only this time as a customer. Greta flips a table and stalks towards the frightened Frances while screaming how much they belong together. It is an effective scene. Jordan and his cameraman Seamus McGarvey, track backward as Greta stalk towards Frances, all while pushing forward from Frances point of view.

It is such a perfect moment both in tone, performance, and execution. It is a crying shame the rest of the movie never lives up to the moment or emotions created by it. McGarvey has shot movies such as Nocturnal Animals and The Greatest Showman. In Greta, his frames are tight but sometimes too bathed in darkness to get a sense of the frame. Still, certain moments, like when Jordan plunges us into Frances’ nightmares, he allows for an ominous feeling to overwhelm us.

Helped by Javier Navarrete’s score, the dream sequences have a chilling and squirming effect. Huppert’s WWE style table flip aside, these are some of the best and most effective scenes of the movie. One scene, in particular, has Frances in an elevator with metal surfaces so we see her reflection on all sides. The walls begin to close in and the lights explode as McGarvey’s camera hangs at the bottom at a low angle giving us the feeling of claustrophobia.

Greta is not without some merit. Jordan, for all his faults, leaves men largely out of the story. So when we do have a damsel in distress, it is another woman who must save her. I couldn’t help but smile at the small but refreshing little twist. I only wish the movie had more to offer along the way.

Effective in parts though it may be, Greta takes itself far too seriously. Especially considering the utter lack of subtext, heck some actual text would have been nice. Unlike last year’s A Simple Favor, I found Greta fleeing from my memory almost before the lights came up. Worse than being good or bad, Greta is mediocre at best.


Image courtesy of Focus Features

Jeremiah
Written By

Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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