The Grifters – The Caper Movie That Wasn’t

August 20, 2012

by — Posted in Personal Writing

Image from Wikipedia

I watched The Grifters last night.  I’m almost certain I’ve seen it before, but it has been long enough that only a few things seemed familiar.   It had echoes of plot lines that I remembered, but vague enough I was guessing the twists before they emerged.   Since I didn’t remember the movie, I was in for a surprise.  Spoilers are below.

Synopsis from a review on IMDB:

In Los Angeles, the smalltime crook Roy Dillon is hit by a baseball bat in the stomach when he tries to swindle a bar attendant. His mother Lilly Dillon works in La Jolla for the powerful bookmaker Bobo Justus, who owns the Justus Amusement Company in Baltimore, placing bets to change the odds at the track but also stealing some money for her that she stashes in her Cadillac. When Lilly comes to Los Angeles to a horse race, she pays a visit to Roy after eight years without seeing each other, and she finds that he has an internal hemorrhage and sends him to the hospital, saving his life. When the experienced Lilly sees Roy’s girlfriend, the slut and con artist Myra Langtry, she immediately finds that Myra is a roper. But the grieved Roy does not pay attention to his absent mother and decides to travel with Myra to La Jolla to spend a couple of days resting. Myra sooner finds that Roy lives of short-con grift and proposes him a great plan to rope tycoons; further she unravels Lilly’s scheme with Bobo’s money. When Roy turns Myra and her offer down, the greedy women set in motion a betrayal that brings tragic consequences to each player.

Let’s start to say that I love caper flicks.  John Cusack (Roy) is also one of my favorite actors.   I’m not going to stand on a soap box and say that he is the most versatile actor, but he chooses his projects and is perfect in almost every one that he is in.   Anjelica Huston (Lilly) is who she’s always been, an actress that can be placed in a variety of roles.   She has a very strong presence in The Grifters.  Finally Annette Bening (Myra) rounds out the cast playing a less demure role than you see her play later in her career.

The whole movie is set up like a standard caper flick.  In the beginning when Roy is assaulted and has a hallucination of his earliest mentor.   One of the key take aways from this scene is that his teacher states that there is nothing sweeter than taking another grifter.   For a caper movie this a big clue, otherwise this scene serves little for character development or moving the story forward.

Later, Myra attempts to talk Roy into a large con job that she performed in the past.   The end of this con culminates in the faked death of one of the characters.   Roy declines and believes he is the one being conned in this whole setup.   This also brings up the fact that Roy has an unrequited attraction to his own mother (who had him at fourteen).

Roy tries to make peace with his mother, after this Myra follows Lilly to the racetrack.  She spies on her with binoculars and sees that Lilly has a stash of money in the trunk of her car.   Myra then informs Lilly’s boss that she is robbing him blind.

Immediately before Lilly finds out, Roy calls her to try to discuss their relationship .  Shortly before Roy arrives, Lilly receives a phone call informing her that her indiscretions are known.  She drops the phone, jumps in the car, and takes off.   Myra watches her leave and follows her.

Lilly stops at a seedy hotel in Phoenix.   Moments later Myra checks into the same hotel.   After Lilly falls asleep Myra goes into the room, wraps her hands around Lilly’s throat and the scene cuts away.   Roy is called to Phoenix to identify a body the police believe is his mother.   This body was shot in the face and appears to be a suicide.   The money was found in the trunk of her car.

Because of the lack of a hand wound Roy realizes that the body is Myra’s and not Lilly’s.  He does tell the police that is his mother.   He turns, has a slight smile on his face and leaves the station.   Lilly is then seen entering Roy’s apartment dressed as Myra.  As she is robbing her own son Roy arrives home and stops her.   There is a strange mother and son sexual attraction scene, then there is a struggle.   A glass is smashed in Roy’s throat and he appears to be dead.

Lilly scoops up as much money as she can and runs to her car.   If she is spotted, the building manager is going to assume it was Myra. She is left driving away and you are waiting for the cut back to Roy so we can see how he scammed her and faked his death.

Then the credits came on.   The movie leaves you with no overall caper.   Myra dies with no benefit.   Roy dies in the accident in an accident with his mother.   Lilly is emotionally wrecked from accidentally killing her own son and she is now forever stuck on the run.   Every character in this movie has had their life ended or destroyed.  With all the possible setup’s in the movie, these are all blind alleys determined to distract and have you believe it is a caper movie.   It isn’t.  It is essentially a “day in the life” type of movie.   All of the characters are bad guys and they reap what they so.

The whole con of the movie is that there isn’t any con.  You spent two hours trying to figure it out, there was nothing to figure out.   Xie disliked the movie.  I thought it was genius.  The con artists managed to put one last con on you.   It was fantastic and a departure from what you would expect was setup for you to watch.  The twist was the lack of twist.

Trailer for the movie:

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