It’s irresistible whenever Isabelle Huppert plays someone dangerous (see her Oscar-nominated role in Elle). As the title character in the English-language Greta, a thriller directed with mirth and malice by the Irish provocateur Neil Jordan, the great French actress is up to demented, delicious mischief. And Chloë Grace Moretz, doing nice with just the right hint of naughty, plays the innocent who’s encounter with Huppert’s mysterious Greta will change her life … and definitely not for the better. Intrigued? How could you not be?
Jordan (The Company of Wolves, Interview With the Vampire) is known for the tricks he hides up his sleeve, notably the sexual peekaboo of The Crying Game, which earned him an Oscar nomination as best director and the trophy itself for his screenplay. Greta isn’t on that level. Jordan, working from a script he conjured up with Ray Wright, is in it for suspense tinged with laughs. But with these two dynamo actresses front and center, this nail-biter keeps you riveted.
Moretz plays Frances McCullen, a young waitress recently moved to New York from Boston. Her roommate Erica (a live-wire Maika Monroe) does her best to coax her friend out of the sadness she’s been feeling since her mother died a year ago. But Frances basically keeps her head down and uses work to alleviate her depression. Until she meets Greta. Actually, she doesn’t meet the older woman … not at first. She sees Greta’s handbag, a green leather purse that has been left on the subway. Our good-girl heroine finds a home address and returns the bag to her. Greta offers tea and sympathy, as well as a mother figure to lean on. Two lonely people find each other. How sweet.
Not in this movie. At first, Frances ignores the thumping noises behind the walls in Greta’s Brooklyn carriage house, sounds that can’t be disguised no matter how loud she plays Liszt on her piano. “Remodeling,” says Greta with an insouciant shrug. Then the woman starts calling Frances incessantly. Let the stalking begin. The tension explodes when Greta visits her prey at her chic restaurant. Trying to maintain a false calm, Frances asks her customer, “How’s the wine?” Greta’s reply is chilling: “Like you, it promises a lot and then disappoints.”
Jordan stages this scene — the film’s best — with coiled intensity, and Huppert plays Greta’s public breakdown like gangbusters. What happens next deserves not to be spoiled, though the plot points unravel like Hitchcock for Dummies 101. The men of the piece — Frances’s widowed father (Colm Fiore) and a detective (The Crying Game‘s Stephen Rea) — are ineffectual. This fight is between two women. Mutual loneliness is a theme the film introduces and swiftly abandons in favor of horror movie tropes. Yeah, you’ve seen it all before. But Huppert pulls out all the funny-scary stops playing cat to Moretz’s mouse. And when the worm turns, fasten your seatbelts. Jordan squeezes the plot for every ounce of campy, disreputable fun. It could have been so much more. But with these two actresses going at it, who’s complaining?