GRETA: Featured Mother and Child

New York City has always been an interesting place when it comes to acts of random kindness. Despite its reputation for being one of the meanest places on Earth, many residents and say that you are never more than few steps from someone who will point you in the right direction, randomly pitch in to pick up your bag of random groceries, or to jog after you on the sidewalk to alert you to what just fell out of your pocket. Unfortunately, Manhattan is not wholly unworthy of its rough and tumble reputation. While the City’s kindness may surprise you, its cruelty will often lay you on your back. GRETA is that duality given film form.

GRETA: Frances, calm
Chloe Grace Moretz plays it cautious in a scene from GRETA. Image Courtesy of Focus Features. 

The Idea Behind GRETA

Frances McCullen (Chloe Grace Moretz) has come to NYC after graduating from Smith College. She is mourning her recently deceased mother and struggling a bit with coming to terms. Her father Chris (Colm Feore) has moved on in some unspecified way, and she is dodging him as a result. Her trust fund roommate Erica (Maika Monroe) — whose parents bought the apartment the girls share — wants Frances to get out and party through the pain. Frances is more tolerant of her but still finds excuses to not live that lifestyle.

Then, one day, Frances spots a purse on the subway, sans owner. Despite the constant signs telling her to do otherwise, she does not say something despite seeing something. Instead, she checks the ID and decides to return it to the owner. After all, she is a fellow Brooklyn borough resident named Greta Hedig (Isabelle Huppert). Why not do a small kindness?

In Greta, Frances finds something of a kindred spirit. Lonely after the death of her husband and her daughter going to France to study music, Greta connects to the younger woman immediately. Together, initially, they help one another cope, despite Erica’s objections that it is “weird.” Soon, however, Frances discovers that finding the purse was not as random as she thought, and she tries to distance herself from Greta. But Greta… well Greta is not a fan of accepting rejection.

GRETA: Music
Isabelle Huppert pumps up the jams during a scene in GRETA. Image Courtesy of Focus Features. 

Writing GRETA

Director Neil Jordan collaborates with writer Ray Wright on the very Neil Jordan feeling screenplay. Its central core is a tightly wound thriller, but in true Jordan, fashion it finds times to wander down alleys that might add mood but little else. As a fan of much of Jordan’s oeuvre, I am used to and enjoy his digressions. He especially loves dream sequences that pop up at times some screenwriting instructor would recommend to you. That said, it is definitely an acquired taste. If you can ride the vibe though, you will find the script’s wanderings — admittedly less than most of Jordan’s recent films — as an escalator of tension, not just a frustrating distraction.

Characterization-wise, the script does not have much by way of layers of Frances. In many ways, she is the innocent being prepped for slaughter. In an undeniably Jordan touch, she is evidently Boston-born and raised but acts as though she grew up in some small town where no one locks their doors. She is at the mercy of the two alphas in her life, her roommate Erica and her stalker/wannabe surrogate mom Greta. The screenplay reflects this as well, writing both these characters with far wider palettes to call from on-screen.

GRETA: Sampling
Chloe Grace Moretz and Isabelle Huppert share a soup in GRETA. Image Courtesy of Focus Features. 

Casting the Leads of GRETA

As noted just above, GRETA’s script sort of handcuffs Moretz, so what you see is what you get. In a film where perception, reality, truth, and lies place such an important role, this can make it difficult for her not to fade into the background. Ultimately, Frances does end up being arguably the least intriguing character on-screen. However, Moretz makes her feel real. The ways we see her literally swallow her instincts early on in dealing with Greta is subtle and smart. Her mounting fear and how that becomes anger feels accurate and lived in. It is the less exciting role, but she gives Frances life.

Huppert gives exactly the performance you would expect and want. At first, she is kind in a vaguely disquieting way. Then, a disturbing mix of pathetic and deluded as she gives speeches about her and Frances belonging together. Finally, she becomes a predator — devious, mean, and utterly empty of morality. There is a moment where she dances with both a victimizer’s smugness and a child’s delight that is perfect in how disturbing it is.

GRETA: Dynamic Duo
Maika Monroe and Chloe Grace Moretz go for a walk in a scene from GRETA. Image Courtesy of Focus Features. 

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

Monroe stealthily proves the most multi-layered of the three women. Initially, her Erica presents as a shallow, flighty figure. She seems to have flat, uninvolved supporting character written all over her. As the film progresses though, we find she has plenty going on beneath the surface. Like the New York I described in the opening, she has the capacity to surprise with empathy and knock you out with spite.

Seeing Colm Feore playing a character who is not a villain feels weird. He does fine with it, but I think I like my Feore performances with a bit more teeth.

Lastly, Stephen Rea, Neil Jordan’s muse, shows up too briefly as a rumpled private investigator who is just good enough at his job to be undone by his confidence.

GRETA: Greta, at rest
Isabelle Huppert has quite the stare in a scene from GRETA. Image Courtesy of Focus Features. 

Directing GRETA

Jordan is probably at his least flashy here. Do not come aboard looking for the phantasmagoria of, say, THE BUTCHER BOY because you will be disappointed.

However, his eye reminds intact. He has a gift for shot selection and finding unusually evocative images to really capture the mood of the scene. He also knows what to hold back on, to avoid showing, to ratchet up the suspense.

With a fixed camera shot of Huppert simply standing on a concrete island in the middle of the road staring impassively at Moretz drips with dread because of how Jordan frames her and then holds the frame, returning to it again and again.

GRETA: Frances, Blotto
Chloe Grace Moretz has had better days in GRETA. Image Courtesy of Focus Features. 

That’s a Wrap!

While not a return to the highs of say THE CRYING GAME, Jordan’s GRETA is smart, twisty, and has a pitch-black sense of humor I enjoyed. This is as vital as he has felt to me since his banner year of 1999 with END OF THE AFFAIR and IN DREAMS. With his keen eye in place and the excellent triumvirate of performances from Huppert, Moretz, and Monroe, it feels good to enjoy a Jordan movie fully again.


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