“It’s not a coincidence that we’re most invested in the proceedings when they’re at their most outlandish, yet as the script spends as much of the time stumbling around on autopilot, the whole effect is diluted.”
by Ken Bakely
After a certain point, it feels like Neil Jordan’s Greta is navigating without a complete map. It’s a bit too underwhelmed to really move; slightly too generic to genuinely try something unique; though still a little too self-conscious to consistently give into its soapy tendencies and clichés, and give them an entertaining spin. When it succeeds, it’s because of Jordan’s ability to build sincere suspense setpieces alongside the strong and committed acting of Isabelle Huppert in the title role, leading the cast as they work their way through each plot development and twist. Pockets of inspiration do break through, and consummate professionalism all around keeps things at an established level of quality, but we may as well see glimpses of a better movie that we aren’t privy to. Such potboiler thrillers need cleaner outlines and simpler strategies: it’s not a coincidence that we’re most invested in the proceedings when they’re at their most outlandish, yet as the script spends as much of the time stumbling around on autopilot, the whole effect is diluted.
The plot’s simplicity conjures up many a popcorn movie from decades past, as we follow Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young woman who has moved to New York City, and is constantly teased by her roommate Erica (Maika Monroe), for her perceived naivety. As proof, she points to Frances’s recent discovery of an abandoned handbag on the subway, in which she personally tracked down its owner – an isolated widow named Greta (Huppert) – and returned it to her. While Frances maintains that it was the polite thing to do, we soon learn that Erica was onto something, as Greta takes advantage of Frances’s friendliness, and begins stalking her with increasing aggression. It turns out that there’s reason to doubt everything about this woman’s past, as each failed attempt to chase Greta off reveals that she is far more secretive, resourceful, and dangerous than Frances could have ever imagined. The screenplay, written by Jordan and Ray Wright, provides us with backstory in lengthy bursts and sharp, third act turns in predictable order, making everything that much more dependent on the moment-to-moment execution and realization of the material.
In essence, this movie is embodied by a series of paradoxes, in which uninspired scripting, silly characterization, and confident performances and direction come together to the muddling simmer that defines the viewing experience. While Huppert appears to have the time of her life, imbuing Greta with an endless supply of constant volatility and out-and-out villainy, she’s never met with a surrounding movie that shares her command. The film is too often caught in hesitation, as if it could gain some hypothetical credibility by restraining itself or questioning its own pulpiness. We’re left with a plot that’s by turns methodically and manically built, and when the story beats are so otherwise predictable, there’s no question as to which approach has a better return on investment. Beyond the sheer value of providing crowdpleasing genre thrills, it’s a matter of having or lacking a confident vision, and Greta feels weaker for every scene spent struggling to work through uneven downtime in which we’re supposed to learn more about these underdeveloped characters. Exposition delivered at those moments could have been better absorbed elsewhere or not at all, and we await another display of Greta’s unhinged behavior to win us back.
While certain audiences are still likely to dismiss movie like this as a lazy trifle from the get go, all narrative films are dependent on a precise balance to really work. Here, we see both great success and disappointment riding on that very principle. By the end, we’re intimately familiar with seemingly every possible execution of this movie, considering that we’re exposed to such a wide variety of both the most realized excellent and most dull mediocrity. Jordan has delivered us an exercise that confirms the individual artistic talents of many of those involved, but doesn’t come into its own as a movie. Greta plays on expectations in suitably eerie or evocative tics – the dark alley through which Greta’s house is located; the lush string flourish on the score accompanying each frightening new revelation; even a knowing tease at future dangers for the protagonist in the final shot – and sells them for all they’re worth, while held back by a rocky foundation that’s not quite solid enough to match that cleverness.