The life of a grifter is a lonely one. To be ‘on the grift’ is to constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to cadge a dollar or two, through scamming, misinformation or getting someone’s trust and then betraying it. A good grifter trusts no-one, works every angle and always remembers that it’s all about the money. Always.
Roy (John Cusack) is a grifter of reasonable skill and exceptional discipline. A few bucks here, a small win there – never the ‘long con’ (big job = high risk). Long cons get you killed if you get caught.
That isn’t to say that being a ‘short con’ artist is risk free, in the early scenes a sly move ends with Roy copping the round end of a baseball bat into his midsection…
Lily (Angelica Huston) is Roy’s Mother, though she hasn’t seen him in nearly a decade. Lily is also a grifter, one of the few with a salary. She works the racetracks for an especially shonky and dangerous businessman. Lily is further up the chain than Roy, where the stakes are high and the hitters are heavier.
Lily arrives to find Roy in agony after his ribs were used for batting practise, she recognises the symptoms and demand that Roy give up the game.
Then comes Myra (Annette Bening), Roy’s girlfriend. Myra dresses and acts like a cheap floosie and jiggles about in high heels and short skirts. Myra is a grifter too, and not above using her body to get the upper hand or to avoid a beating.
Amazingly enough none of the trio initially realise that they are all part of the same extremely small occupational group.
Lily hates Myra, Myra wants Roy to think ‘long’ and for his part Roy resents Lily’s lack of parental instinct and wants Myra to understand that he is comfortable in his lane.
With a triangle of seasoned con artists in the same orbit it is inevitable that double and triple crossing will be involved, and The Grifters doesn’t let you down. Being that it is about unsavoury types it is hard to root for anyone in the film really, but then again Roy is John Cusack – the man it is night impossible to hate. For her part Annette Bening is suitably aggravating, bubbly and frankly slutty as the opportunistic Myra, and Lily constantly fights against her maternal urges and worries about her own future. Above all Lily realises that every day is a day closer to being screwed over.
Thankfully the film sensibly decides to stay in its lane, no cleverer than thou mega-twists or leaps of logic. The tone starts dark and only gets darker through the film, and while the finale is very black it ends the film in fitting fashion.
Final Rating – 7.5 / 10. The Grifters is a small unassuming little early 90s effort featuring a solid script and great performances from all three leads. It isn’t flashy or showy – which is why it is seldom spoken of now – but it is well worth a look if you can find it.