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Canon Entry - The Grifters (1990)

Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.


Noir may be the one genre that best illustrates many men’s petrifying fear of women. In few genres are women reliably villains, often “relegated” to the role of femme fatales. Ironically, these femmes are often the most interesting characters in the noirs and are usually the most significant challenge to the (usually) male protagonists because they don’t fight fair. Violence a man can understand, but women rarely fight with violence.

So imagine poor Roy Dillon (John Cusack) having to deal with not one but two femme fatales, his mother Lilly (Angelica Huston) and his girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening). All three actors are brilliant in their roles, but the women definitely dominate this picture. But we need to talk about Roy first. John Cusack plays Roy as an ingenue with pretensions of superior knowledge. He deems himself above the con game, even as he hustles constantly, earning his living dollar by dollar (literally). He is good at the small con. There are definitely scenes that demonstrate his considerable skills, and he comes off as impressive in his dexterity and pathetic for his lack of vision.

It is this lack that the two women in his life will latch onto and will make it the bane of Roy’s existence. Lilly comes back into Roy’s life after years of an estranged relationship and cares for him in her unsentimental way when he has to go to the hospital after a bad encounter with a violent mark. She has not given up the con life, and in fact, we see her at the beck and call of a volatile bookkeeper improbably named Bobo Justus. Lilly and Roy’s relationship is courteous at best and venomous with huge Freudian overtones at its worst.

Perhaps the best performance is Annette Bening’s as Myra. Her Myra is all surface, a dangerous mixture of sex kitten and calculating bird of prey. It also seems like she has no hint of an interior life. Or that her insistence on this persona she wears 24/7 is some way of escaping a deep personal trauma in her past. Not that she would ever tell or has any desire to. Myra clearly delights in her performance and how much power it gives her.

It seems a little strange that Roy would not have any real inkling of what Myra is like, but she reveals it soon enough when she witnesses Roy’s short con for himself, his real profession having been a mystery to her before that moment. Note her almost orgiastic pleasure when she describes an elaborate scam she used to partake in that involved swindling oil men with a phony investment in technology meant to manipulate the stock market. The way she coos and contorts as she meticulously relates her role within that particular scam is hamminess at its best, and I loved every moment of her performance.

Of course, Ray is just smart enough to see just how dangerous a woman Myra is.

“The BEST reason I can think of is that you scare the hell out of me. I have seen women like you before, baby. You're double-tough and you are sharp as a razor, and you get what you want or else; but you don't make it work forever. Sooner or later the lightning hits, and I'm not gonna be around when it hits you.”

Perhaps what really terrifies Ray is that he has ended up with a woman too much like his mother. It is this Oedipal obsession that makes The Grifters smack of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy. In fact, I find some interesting connections when I compare Ray to Hamlet. Both are characters with unnatural obsessions with their mothers. (In fact, Freud would be inspired by Shakespeare’s unique take on human psychology for his own ideas.) Both are quite smart and capable in their own way, but they are crippled by self-doubt. Donald e. Westlake’s script gives Roy just enough to do to tantalize us into thinking that we will see Roy’s big moment when he will use his amazing skills as a con artist to divest himself from his situation overall, but that moment does not come.

The reason that Roy sticks to the short con is because he had witnessed what a long con had done to his mother. It becomes even more complicated with Cole’s choice of father figures. Even Roy’s association with Cole (J.T. Walsh), the short con artist who taught him, is eerily reminiscent of Hamlet’s own relationship with his father. (He even sees a ghost of him at one point!)

However, one of the most striking similarities between Hamlet and Ray is an almost metatextual self-awareness. The famed literary critic Harold Bloom argued that Hamlet knows he is in a play and that so much of the play is his trying to break out of the seedy genre that he has found himself in. I feel that Ray also knows that he is in a noir since he knows exactly who his mother and his girlfriend are, yet he cannot help to be attracted to them. His mother is so much in his head that once he finds out just how similar Myra is to his mother, he loses all trust in her. Ray spends much of the movie glorying in how good he is at a con and how he is the smartest guy in the room. Yet he is also crippled with insecurities and cannot help but to be dominated by the two powerful women in this film. It turns out that the person he had most effectively conned was himself.

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