For the first 20 or so minutes of Greta, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Word around the Toronto International Film Festival was that Neil Jordan‘s latest film could have been included in the Midnight Madness program that screens horror and genre films. Once the film kicks into high gear, it becomes apparent why audiences were responding this way, but the film struggles initially to overcome generic conventions and stock characters.
Greta opens on Chloë Grace Moretz‘s Frankie, a naive early-twenties waitress new to Manhattan who lives with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe) in a Tribeca loft. Right away, we know who these characters are because we’ve seen them both before. Frankie is quiet and too trusting. Erica is a superficial party monster whose lifestyle is funded by her parents’ money.
While on the subway, Frankie happens upon a handbag left behind and, going against Erica’s advice to take the money and dump the bag, decides to return it to its owner. The owner is the eponymous Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a widow living alone on the Upper East Side. Greta and Frankie bond instantly. Frankie’s mother passed away several years prior and Greta, whose daughter apparently lives in Paris, is more than happy to take on a motherly role for Frankie. It doesn’t take long for Frankie to realize that Greta has more sinister intentions and that she hasn’t been completely honest about her family and her past.
It’s when Frankie cuts off communication from Greta that the film is injected with the kind of cheap thrills that would have made for a great Adrian Lyne film in the ’80s or ’90s. Greta begins stalking both Frankie and Erica, attacking them in public, and smashing every glass object in sight. But the trashy joy that the film produces can’t quite mask all of its flaws. Character actions are nonsensical, the dialogue is cringe-worthy, more than one twist is easily guessed, and, as much as her signature cherubic qualities are suited to Frankie’s naivete, Moretz can’t quite keep up with Huppert when the two go head to head.
Of course, keeping up with Huppert is no easy feat. The French actress’ versatility is wisely employed by Jordan. Even when we sense that Greta has a few skeletons in her closet, it’s difficult to not sympathize with the obviously lonely widow. This allows the film to explore the generational gap between its two leads in an illuminating way. For Frankie and Erica, it only makes sense to end communication with Greta by ignoring her texts and hoping she goes away. But Greta demands an explanation; she won’t accept being ghosted by her surrogate daughter. Up until Greta truly goes off the deep end, it’s easy to understand her anger towards Frankie. No one likes being abandoned.
This sympathy is short lived however as it becomes apparent that Greta’s descent into madness and violence is showing no signs of slowing down. Huppert knows how to play unhinged in an irresistibly devilish way and that skill is on full display here as it appears she had a lot of fun portraying a motherly version of Glenn Close’s Alex in Fatal Attraction. Most of the laughs that Greta garners from the audience are unintentional, but even during the film’s campiest moments, there’s always the sense that Huppert — if no one else — is in on the joke.
Jordan, whose previous films include Interview With The Vampire and The Crying Game, is skilled when it comes to crafting horror and thriller movies and he manages to subvert a couple of expected tropes, keeping the film engaging until the end despite there being some weak spots along the way. At its worst, Greta is burdened by clunky dialogue and implausible plot points. But at its best, nothing entertains quite like Huppert unleashing Greta’s derangement in all its glory, and with a touch of mutilation and some classical music in the third act, Jordan allows her to do just that.
Greta might not be the best that TIFF has to offer, but it’s a campy and enjoyably grisly thriller that will surely entertain genre fans and Isabelle Huppert devotees alike.