Director Neil Jordan has spent a considerable amount of his career adding layers of prestige to B-movie material. In 1994, he adapted Anne Rice’s deeply silly novel Interview with the Vampire as an Oscar-nominated epic starring two of the world’s most sought-after movie stars. The Brave One, Byzantium and In Dreams all took similarly refined approaches to dopey premises.
Headlines have touted Greta, Jordan’s first film in seven years, as a modern-day Hansel and Gretel fable, a throwback to the director’s career-long fascination with fairy tales, which can be traced all the way back to 1984’s The Company of Wolves. However, Greta is most apparently a maternal spin on those stalker thrillers that dominated the ’90s — where a naive young woman (Chloë Grace Moretz) strikes a chance friendship with an older woman (Isabelle Huppert) that quickly turns deranged. The union of French phenom Huppert and Jordan’s sleek direction is what elevates a frankly moronic script into an effectively lurid exercise. Imagine Pacific Heights or The Crush with pronounced arthouse pretensions.
When Moretz’s character Frances first tracks down the owner of an abandoned purse left on the subway, Greta seems to be the kind of solitary widow brimming with fascinating stories and insight to share. It’s clear why Frances would be smitten with her immediate charm and generosity, not to mention the absolutely dope apartment where she lives. Huppert plays Greta in these initial scenes as a woman of elegant composure, with just a tinge of underlying sorrow. Soon, that facade is lifted to reveal something more sadistic.
Obviously, Huppert is the main selling point here. The majority of people walking into this film will only be doing so to see the actress unleash her inner Hannibal Lecter, and Greta delivers that in glorious fashion. Even those unfamiliar with Huppert will no doubt leave impressed; playing the villainous role in a stalker flick requires a deft balance between camp and menace, which Huppert expertly pulls off. Not many actresses could shriek the line, “I’m like chewing gum … I tend to stick around!” without crossing entirely into self-parody, but Huppert is of an exceptional breed.
Moretz, who I haven’t been overly impressed with since her stunning breakout as Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, is smartly cast as Greta’s object of unwanted motherly affection. Moretz has a built-in, wide-eyed expressiveness to her face that sells Frances’ inexperience and willingness to trust others. Once the credits roll, her character has been put through hell, and that naiveté has been reduced to a traumatized bundle of nerves.
Despite the pedigree of talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, Greta frequently suffers from a clunky screenplay. The first act is especially frustrating as Greta is seemingly an apparition, able to appear and disappear at the movie’s convenience. Many of these scenes are expertly crafted, Jordan and the cinematographer love to play with the background and foreground of shots, keeping Huppert’s stalker just outside the frame and popping back in at unexpected places.
Still, even by the standards of a subgenre that mainly exists on the Lifetime channel today, the characters in Greta, particularly Frances, make profoundly idiotic decisions throughout. Being new to the city, Frances is supposed to be a bit guileless; however, there are certain instances when she has an opportunity to, ahem, end matters, and she instead chooses to take the worst possible route. Some might dismiss this as par for the course, but when you have a script co-written by Jordan, it’s not unreasonable to expect a screenplay where characters behave like human beings.
None of that matters by the time the film arrives at its horror-show climax, though. Without revealing any surprises, it reaches truly depraved heights and transforms its villain from a frantic stalker to a bloodthirsty demon. As played by Huppert, that should be all the reason you need to take Greta’s bait.