Greta is far more silly than sinister, but is partially saved by Isabelle Huppert's gloriously theatrical performance as the film's titular character.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Neil Jordan has made a career out of telling fairy tales for adults. In addition to his early work about werewolves (The Company of Wolves) and vampires (Interview with the Vampire), the storyteller has recently explored romantic tales about shape-shifting sea cratures (Ondine), as well as dramatic stories about vampiric mother-daughter duos (Byzantium). This brings us to Greta, Jordan's first movie since 2012 and a horror-thriller that feels like something the Brothers Grimm would've made, had they been around today. Unfortunately, the film ultimately lands in a frustrating middle ground between high art and farce. Greta is far more silly than sinister, but is partially saved by Isabelle Huppert's gloriously theatrical performance as the film's titular character.
Chloë Grace Moretz stars in Greta as Frances McCullen, a sweet-natured young woman trying to make it in the big crazy world of New York City, with a little help from her wealthy roomate and best friend Erica (Maika Monroe). One day, while riding the subway home from work, Frances notices a handbang that was left behind. Acting against Erica's advice, Frances decides to return the item to its owner - namely, Greta Hideg (Huppert), an older French woman and somewhat eccentric piano teacher with a passion for classical music.
Despite her quirks, Frances quickly befriends Greta and connects with the lonely widow, having only just lost her mother the year before. The pair begin spending more and more time together, even after Erica accuses Frances of having basically made Greta her surrogate parent. However, when Frances discovers that her new aquiantance isn't what she pretends to be, she realizes she's being used and immediately tries to end the relationship. Thing is, once Greta has her hooks into you, she won't let go without a fight...
Greta is Huppert's show above all else and, to his credit, Jordan - the director - seems to recognize that. The Oscar-nomineee is known for playing wildly unpredictable characters in everything from Michael Haneke dramas (The Piano Teacher) to David O. Russell screwball comedies (I Heart Huckabees), but has never tackled an antagonist quite as comically deranged as the one she portrays here. Huppert fully embraces her character's unhinged nature, and there's much fun to be had in the scenes where Greta is either actively terrorizing people or quietly preparing to spring her latest trap on someone. Jordan does his part to further enhance Huppert's performance with over the top ominous camera angles and dramatic shifts in Javier Navarrete's score that signal whenever the film's namesake is about to strike again.
Problem is, where someone like Paul Verhoeven was able to use Huppert's acting to walk the line between serious drama and trashy thriller in the film Elle, Jordan struggles to do the same in Greta. The story by Jordan and his cowriter Ray Wright (The Crazies) simply requires far too much suspension of disbelief when it comes to having characters say and/or do flat-out dumb things. Obviously, people acting foolishly in a horror movie is something that audiences typically expect, but Greta goes overboard way too often in this regard (apparently, no one understands how door locks work in this film). As a result, Jordan's attempts to create moments of genuine tension and suspense tend to fall flat and are more likely to elicit unintended giggles than cries of fear. These scenes can be entertaining, of course, but it's hard to ignore the feeling that you're laughing at the movie, not with it.
This issue further undercuts the film's attampts to dig deeper into its characters psychologically and really shine a light on what makes them tick. In many ways, Greta feels like another horror movie that suffers from not having a female creative involved in the storytelling, be it as a writer and/or director. The film explores a common fear among many adults - that they might end up befriending someone who's not at all what they appear to be - but arguably does so in a way that speaks more to the general experiences of women than men. It's possible that a female storyteller might've been able to help Jordan and Wright make the characters in Greta feel more like real people, rather than archetypes lifted from a full-blown fairy tale. Instead, Greta takes place in a world that's mostly realistic, yet is populated by villians and heroes who seem like they belong in a fantasy setting or a similarly heightened reality.
Much like Huppert, the rest of the cast outshine the material they're given to work with here. Frances might be eye-rollingly naive at times, but Moretz makes the character as believable as she possibly could be and invites the audience's sympathy, even before she wisens up and starts seeing her new "friend" for what she truly is. Similarly, the film cracks some tedious jokes about Erica's hipster ways and New Age philosophy, yet ultimely makes the character more intelligent and compelling than she might've been in another horror-thriller. It helps that Monroe brings a sense of charisma and street-saviness to the role, giving her yet another fine horror movie performance to add to her belt after It Follows and The Guest. The other supporting players (including, longtime Jordan collaborator Stephen Rea and Velvet Buzzsaw's Zawe Ashton) are mostly wasted by comparison, but through no fault of their own.
As a whole, Greta is too ridiculous to take seriously, but not goofy enough to enter so-bad-it's-good territory. Perhaps if Jordan had followed Huppert's lead and leaned harder into the film's campy elements - or tried to rein her in and make the titular antagonist more believable - the movie would've joined the ranks of his better and more memorable fairy tales for grown-ups. Instead, Greta ends up being a film that's probably going to be either too stupid or not stupid enough for a lot of moviegoers. No doubt, there are those who will enjoy the film for its silliness and especially its leading lady's performance, and they're encouraged to check it out at some point. Just try not to chuckle too loudly when Huppert starts chewing up the scenery, if you're watching Greta in a theater.
Greta is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 98 minutes long and is rated R for some violence and disturbing images.
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