Greta could fit in a range of “psychological thriller” subcategories. It includes elements of stranger danger, stalking, kidnapping, but at heart it’s a “big city peril” movie. Those don’t get made too often any more as technology (like navigation apps or social media) renders even the biggest cities inherently fungible. What it doesn’t include is a flashy sense of style or the more fantastical elements that command quicker attention and box office potential. This feels like a modest and unambitious film, its most ambitious idea might be that we should still think big cities are scary and alienating, but this might merely be out of touch. Either way, this is a solid thriller that explores a deeply unpleasant situation with class and restraint. This is kind of a polite film. That might seem strange to say, but it’s a word that totally fits.
The set-up is a classic: Frankie (Chloe Grace-Moretz) is a Bostonian navigating the newness of New York City with her more streetwise bestie, Erica (Maika Munroe). One day, she finds a purse on a train and can’t help but return it to Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a sweet, if eccentric, middle-aged lady. After striking up a fast friendship it becomes clear that Greta isn’t just lonely and a little fixated, she may actually be dangerous. The film is broadly about being careful who you let into your life, especially when you’re estranged from family and looking to connect. Underneath that, there are more personal themes of loss and the dysfunctional ways we cope.
Isabelle Huppert is the raison d'être for this film. She turns what could have been a lazy stock character into a multi-layered performance that is an absolute blast to watch. Her mannerisms, speech, and physical tics (down to her eye blinks) are mercurial, ranging from playful to sinister in a breath. Huppert sinks her teeth into the role, becoming a twisted middle-aged manic pixie dream girl gone terribly, terribly wrong. One of the ways Greta conveys restraint is in never letting its titular character’s motivations become too alien or evil. This makes her behavior terrifying precisely because it’s predictable (in a relentless, insane sort of way) and rooted firmly in the mother/daughter issues that thematically drive the rest of the film.
The cast for this one is small, reinforcing the intimacy of the story. Maika Munroe brings a certain amount of charm to her supporting role, along with Colm Feore and Stephen Rea who appear only briefly. This is a very female centered film, refreshingly so, and a lot is on the very capable shoulders of Chloe Grace-Moretz. Having already proven herself one of the best and most versatile young actresses, Grace-Moretz uses her youthful look and voice perfectly here, affecting exactly the right amounts of fear, vulnerability, and loneliness. What is refreshing about the performance is how strong Frankie is. Until things really go wrong, the character and performance are noteworthy for exemplifying self-respect and self-reliance.
Neil Jordan (directing and co-writing with Ray Wright) has been quietly making interesting, if not commercially successful, films for many years. Every so often, he’ll do something fresh with a genre project. Byzantium was one of the best vampire films in years and Ondine was as haunting as it was heartfelt. It would seem fair to expect him to do something intriguing with Greta, but mileage will vary on that, particularly because it owes a big debt to Single White Female. On one hand, he isn’t really stretching here. On the other, he does what he does best and puts great actors into messy, psychologically problematic situations and lets us see what happens.
Greta is a throwback in a few different ways. Aesthetically, it seems almost timeless, but uses technology in a way that is elegant and subverts the expectation that things like cell phones will work however the plot requires them to. When it’s time for the movie to get intense and scary, it feels a little like low-key Hitchcock. That said, the film does try to get away with some fake-outs and beats that are routine and not the kind of thing that audiences really fall for any more. Viewers may be left wanting more, whether that’s a harder edge to the horror elements or perhaps more crazy antics. No one will be blown away by Greta as a whole, so the biggest risk of its approach is that it could result in a forgettable movie. Especially in a time where it seems like films have to be memorable, whether for good or bad reasons, for anyone to care at all