Making a good Con Man movie at this point is no easy task. It's always fun to watch con artists pull off a job, but the genre itself is riddled with cliches. I get so tired of when you find out that the con man hero was actually being conned the whole time, by his partner or mark. That was a funny and original twist thirty years ago in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but a tired old gag by the time it turned up ten years ago in Matchstick Men.
The Grifters is, thankfully, different from the typical con man movie. In fact, it's not like any I've ever seen. It is less interested in the act of deception and more interested in getting inside the characters and exploring the reasons why they make a living out of deceiving. Produced in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, and directed by Stephen Frears, The Grifters is a dark and gritty look at what makes the con artist tick.
John Cusack stars as Roy, a young grifter who focuses only on the small game. He learned from his mentor never to pull a long con, never to work with partners, and never to get caught. Unfortunately, he's maybe not as good as his mentor. At the start of the movie, he gets caught by a bartender he attempts to rip off and takes a baseball bat to the gut, resulting in his hospitalization for internal bleeding.
This brings his mother, Lilly (Anjelica Huston), out of the woodwork. She works at a horse racing track for a dirty bookie, betting on horses in order to mess up the odds. Lilly had Roy when she was only 14, and never has fully forgiven him for ruining her life. The feeling is mutual. Roy has issues with her methods of parenting as well.
Roy's girlfriend, Myra (Annette Bening), is also in the game. Though in her glory days, she worked long cons with the big guys, she now also works small time, largely relying on sex to get the job done. There is an instant dislike between Myra and Lilly upon meeting.
What follows is a story of deception and betrayal, as the three characters demonstrate just how far they will go to get what they want. I loved that there wasn't a "mark" or a con that they all team up to pull on somebody. It was all about the three of them.
In the case of Cusack, he's not willing to go quite as far as the women. He doesn't really have what it takes to be in the game, and that's what makes him likeable, and maybe is why his performance is not as well regarded as Bening's and Huston's, who both got Oscar nominations. He really is just as good as they are, though. This was made not long after Say Anything... with Cusack hungry for the big leagues and ready for more grown-up roles.
As said before, Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston are fantastic as well. They take each of their characters to really dark places. Moreso than with Cusack's character, who really just wants to be loved by his mother, you see through them the kind of damaged person one must be to make a life out of lying.
Stephen Frears is an extremely talented director who has made some great movies in a wide range of different genres. He is perhaps best known, in addition to The Grifters, for directing another John Cusack classic, High Fidelity. These two work together excellently. I'd go so far as to say Frears is the best Cusack director there is. They should make another movie together, it's well past time for that.
I laid off talking about the actual plot of The Grifters, because there are some twists and turns and it actually took me by surprise. The story did not play out remotely how I expected it to, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. It's rare and refreshing to see a Con Man movie that doesn't fall back on the usual devices of the genre.