There are flashes of camp pleasure in Neil Jordan’s thin retread of early-90s psycho-thrillers, but they’re mostly lost within a slick mush of cliches
In Neil Jordan’s silly new film Greta, we’re shown what happens when Isabelle Huppert’s finely honed brand of psychopathy is thrown to a mass audience – or, at least, the vague hope of one. After scoring a shock Oscar nomination for her ferocious performance in Elle, and finally gaining the attention of a wider crowd, she’s disappointingly squandered in this rather rote slab of nonsense, which was introduced as a “twisted little thriller” before its debut at this year’s Toronto film festival. But for anyone who has ever actually seen a thriller before, it’s more of a straight, seemingly endless road to nowhere.
Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is finding life in New York to be less than the dream she expected – partly because she’s bored of her restaurant job, but mostly the result of a big-city loneliness exacerbated by the recent loss of her mother. One day, she finds a handbag on the subway and follows its trail back to Greta (Huppert), a lonely widow who spends her days playing piano and reminiscing in her extravagant Brooklyn house. The two bond, but Frances soon discovers that Greta’s solitude is disguising something far more sinister.
It’s a set-up that will be familiar to those well-versed in early-90s psycho-thrillers, from Single White Female to Unlawful Entry to The Crushand given how rare it is to see this formula on the big screen now, there’s an initial air of intrigue. Huppert’s involvement hintsthat we’re heading somewhere tantalisingly strange yet for so long, it’s stuck in third gear, the plot plodding along, sleepily ticking all the boxes we expect. It plays like an unnecessary, asexual reboot of Notes on a Scandal yet without that film’s juicy menace and, most importantly, characterisation.
In a more psychologically astute film, there would be something to be said about the crushing loneliness of living in New York, exemplified here by two types who feel it most: the bright-eyed newbie whose eyes grow darker by the day and the senior citizen whose glory days have been replaced with loss and shrinking memories. But despite being almost a two-hander, there’s very little depth given to these two characters. They’re mere pawns – so many scenes feel perfunctory, with flat dialogue doing little more than getting us from one plot point to the next.
Jordan is an accomplished director, and his film is at least slick to look at, a finely framed skeleton in need of more meat on its bones. Though set in New York, it was shot in Dublin and it’s one of the more painfully obvious examples of location-shifting, with road signs, traffic lights and dodgy accents alerting us to the discrepancy. There are similar missteps in the script, including a catalogue of distractingly stupid 80s- slasher-movie-level idiocy – characters heading into creepy basements, failing to leave stalker-targeted phones on silent during the night, hiding in alleyways rather than public places – and, maybe more unrealistically, two young women still using a landline.
Such absurdity might have felt less jarring in a film that was more embracing of its camp potential. At times, there’s a clearer recognition of the fun that can be had with a handful of gif-ready moments, from an act of gruesome kitchen-based violence to a restaurant-based meltdown to Huppert being dragged out in a straitjacket like a Batman villain, and ultimately crescendoing in a hysterical scene that sees her joyfully spitting her gum in Moretz’s hair. It leans into this more towards the end, but it’s not quite perverse enough: the tone remains frustratingly unsure and it all arrives after too much boringly structured emptiness.
Huppert can electrify a scene with a sinister stare or a menacing lip twitch, but even she struggles with Jordan’s zinger-light script, co-written with Ray Wright, whose credits include remakes of Pulse and The Crazies. One can feel a lingering desperation to sink her teeth into something juicier and given the wide range of deviance we’ve seen from her before, it feels throwaway, as if she signed on for a lark. Moretz, coming off the back of arguably her most mature role to date in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, makes a valiant effort, but her character is too muted and passive and as her roommate, Maika Monroe is just charming enough to make you wish she had something better to be doing with herself.
As Greta screeches to a halt, it’s not quite clear what Jordan was aiming for. A psychological thriller about obsession and loneliness? A campy B-movie made for a wine-swigging late-night crowd? A reason to work with Isabelle Huppert? It’s everything and nothing, a familiar regurgitation of a formula with precious little to add.
Greta is screening at the Toronto film festival, with a release date yet to be confirmed.