Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan is back with "Greta", starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Isabelle Huppert, a sinister new psychological horror flick that wants to deliver the chills.
Nothing in this world is as scary as an angry Mammy, just ask any Irish person. But what if she really flies off the handle? What if she truly goes postal? What if you start getting nonstop text messages from her and then she starts showing up in the bushes outside your job?
There are some mammies who have probably contemplated it, but in Neil Jordan's new film "Greta", it actually happens. French actress Isabelle Huppert, 66, one of the most accomplished screen actress in modern cinema, plays Greta Hideg, a charming on the surface but completely bats—t underneath homicidal psychopath concealing some serious abandonment issues.
Huppert's performance is a reminder of how much a gifted actor can bring to a film, lifting what could be a hoary genre piece into something altogether richer and more involving. She begins by playing coy, and then she builds and builds toward gleeful insanity that you can not trust or take your eyes off.
The film begins when a young student living in New York named Frances McCullen (Chloe Grace Moretz) finds an expensive looking handbag abandoned on the subway. Raised well, Frances decides to bring it home and examine the contents for clues about its rightful owner. Ever the good girl, she plans to return it.
But her young friend and roommate Erica (Maika Monroe) has other ideas. Lets keep the money and have a big spa day, she counsels. In fact, let's go for colonics, she suggests. Frances is shocked by her lack of scruples and insists she'll return to the rightful owner, contents intact.
Both Frances and Chloe are well-heeled upper-middle-class girls, the film tells us because they live in a New York City in an apartment so huge that Frances can ride her bicycle through it very comfortably. This is kind of New York apartment that people in movies and sit-coms live in, I guess.
Frances' tasteful interior furnishings all look like they have all been purchased at Design Within Reach on her parent's dime. She works as a waitress in a fancy restaurant by night but she lives like she's one door down from Taylor Swift by day.
It doesn't make a lot of sense. Neither do the relationships in the film, to be honest.
But not being quite able to trust what you see is a big part of Greta, and Jordan intentionally sets out to hoodwink both his characters and us. Principle shooting for the film actually occurred in Dublin, and to the film's advantage as it turned out because New York's buildings have rarely looked this mean and moody. But at other times it's quite a distraction since the Europeaness of the architecture simply defies you to believe that it's Gotham.
Anyway no sooner does Frances return the lost handbag than shes invited inside for tea by a simpering and apparently grateful Greta. We soon learn that the older woman has lost her husband to illness and her daughter to immigration, so she's alone in the big city now.
Some things about her past don't quite add up from the get-go, but Frances is still grieving over her mother recent death and she sees a surrogate figure in Greta, which means she decides to overlook them all.
That's her first big mistake. Moretz is a natural screen presence and she brings the right amount of trust and suspicion to her heartbroken character, making us believe she might give Greta a chance to fill the big void left by her absent mother.
But things take a dramatic turn when she is invited to dinner one evening. Searching for candles in a wardrobe she discovers an identical set of handbags to the one she discovered, and each one has a name attached.
Spooked, she gets through the dinner as quickly as possible and then bolts out the door as soon as she can. The truth of the situation has to be faced. Greta has done this bag trick before multiple times and who knows where those girls ended up?
Frances decides the best idea is to ghost her older friend but Greta soon makes it clear she will not go quietly. Immediately Frances iPhone lights up with text message after text message. Then Greta turns up outside her restaurant and stares in at her for hours.
The police are of no help. It's not against the law to stand outside in the street they tell her, Greta could spend the day taking pictures of you through the windows and she still wouldn't be breaking the law.
This is the part of the film turns out to be the most chilling. It's 2019 and our laws and courts still cannot respond to allegations of stalking and harassment with the kind of maturity and concern a person making the petition for help actually needs. A barring order takes months to process. Essentially Frances is on her own.
Things begin to escalate quickly after that. Greta books a table at Frances restaurant and then publicly confronts her over her supposed treachery. Huppert goes the full bunny boiler in the scene, making Frances and us the audience realize just how much she's bitten off with this whack a do in a Chanel suit.
It darker and weirder from here on in, but oddly funnier too. Huppert gives herself over completely to this bad mammy role, reveling in every scene but never quite tipping over into full-on camp.
What's frustrating about the film is the lack of agency or smarts that Jordan permits his young female protagonists at key moments. Where once they might have been tied to a train track by a fiend in an early Hollywood film, in 2019 he has them writhing on beds handcuffed and gagged for a lot of the final act.
When Greta finally kidnaps Frances and brings her home to captivity we have seen it coming for so long we almost can't believe it's happening. Soon a battle of wills commences that culminates in a truly ghoulish battle of wills.
But here again, that cliched horror film trope plays out again. When Frances is presented with an opportunity to escape she does everything that you should not do when being held captive by a maniac, including running into the basement and banging on a one-foot window in an impossible attempt to escape.
Women are smarter than this. Men are smarter than this. We lose sympathy for this damsel in distress scenarios when the protagonist makes inexplicable choices. Presented with better options she continually makes the silliest ones. We lose sympathy for her because of it and that's as fatal to the film as the syringe-wielding nut job who gives it its name.
Anxiety about women and motherhood is age-old. Fear that the maternal instinct can tip over into something macabre is a very old fairy tale theme. Young women being menaced by older ones who want to chastise them and possibly kill them is the motherhood process turned on its head.
It's obvious that Greta wanted to say some interesting things about its protagonists, about motherhood and grief and how you go on when what you have been living for is passed. But the truth is the end product is neither very cerebral or camp.
It does have a few good scares and Huppert is iconic in the role, but you'll laugh when you're supposed to scream and you'll scoff when you're supposed to gasp. You'll have to decide yourself if it was too clever by half or too dumb for words.