Despite the occasional outlier (Byzantium), Neil Jordan, a one-time, A-list, world-class filmmaker with credits that include Mona Lisa, The Company of Wolves, The Crying Game, and Interview With A Vampire (among others), continues the long, inexorable slide towards irrelevancy with his latest feature-length film, Greta. Relying on a sub-par screenplay co-written with remake specialist Ray Wright (The Crazies, Case 39, and Pulse), clichéd genre elements grafted on fairy tale elements, and dueling performances from Chloë Grace Moretz (Suspiria, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Fifth Wave) and Isabelle Huppert (8 Women, The Piano Teacher, La Cérémonie), Jordan delivers the kind of a film that might get a passing grade from an ambitious, if talent- and resource-limited, first-time director trying to make a name for themselves, but a failing one for a director with more than four decades behind the camera. And that’s actually being extremely kind to a filmmaker who embraces genre clichés but refuses to also fully embrace the camp potential of those same genre clichés.
We don’t the title character, Greta Hideg (Huppert), right away. Instead, we meet Moretz’s character, Frances McCullen, a recent Smith College graduate-turned-restaurant server who’s lucked out into a cush Manhattan, courtesy of her rich-girl friend, Erica Penn (Maika Monroe), and Erica’s wealthy father. Jordan and Wright counter Erika’s innate, big-city distrust and cynicism with Frances new-girl-in-the-city innocence and naiveté. It’s that same naiveté that leads Frances to return an expensive bag she finds on the subway to its rightful owner, Greta. A lonely, isolated woman with a French accent and a scarily intense demeanor, Greta invites Frances into her multi-level, Brooklyn home for a cup of java. Before long, Greta and Frances have become borderline friends, with Greta obviously fulfilling Frances apparent need for a maternal figure (Frances lost her mother to a mystery illness in the recent past).
Once, however, Greta’s inner stalker makes an appearance (then two, then three…), Frances finally decides to cut off Greta, except Greta, like a long line of obsessive, controlling women from time immemorial (see, e.g., Fatal Instinct, Single White Female, Crush, etc.), doesn’t take kindly to Frances rejection. Greta may not have superpowers of any kind, but she has the uncanny ability to show up at Frances’ workplace and stand outside, perfectly still, for hours and hours on end. It’s only when Frances, finally following the advice of her old-people-rejecting roommate, Erika, decides to lie to Greta about leaving town – this after Greta spits gum in Greta’s hair and flips a table, Real Housewives of New Jersey-style, that Greta (the movie) finally settles into its second act, a virtual battle of wills between Greta and Frances, with logic, along with a sliced and diced digit, Jordan’s real victims.
Greta (the movie again) descends further in comical absurdity with the brief introduction of a sad-sack, IQ-challenged private investigator, Brian Cody (Stephen Rea, in a thankless role). Cody exists primarily as an unnecessary, time-wasting/wheels-spinning homage to Psycho (or rather a character in Psycho who meets a similarly predictable, similarly unfortunate end). And in a film that runs 99 excruciatingly long minutes, Cody’s entrance and exit could have been easily excised – and saved for the inevitable Blu-Ray release – without anyone noticing or even caring except for Rea or his friends and family. Unfortunately, Jordan thought otherwise, leaving moviegoers wondering how and when – maybe something in New York’s water supply – all of the characters except Greta lost roughly 50-60 IQ points from the first to the second half (what the late Roger Ebert repeatedly called “idiot plotting”).
Even Greta’s name – meant to evoke Hansel & Gretel – does Greta (the movie) no favors. For all of its fairy-tale trappings, Greta (the movie) offers little in the way of spin or subversion of fairy tale tropes (Greta and Frances’ gender aside, that is), but instead comes dangerously close to not just embracing, but also endorsing millennial and post-millennial fears of anyone over fifty and their proximity to death and decay. “Fear old people,” Greta says apparently. Also, “Fear old people bearing coffee and cookies who live alone in underlit, isolated houses.” Better to let them die alone and miserable than to risk befriending them and risk losing your life, liberty, and happiness. Not that Huppert, a consummate professional with decades of experience playing unhinged women on the verge of multiple nervous breakdowns (or worse) on screen, doesn’t give her performance as Greta her complete and utter commitment. She does, making Greta (the movie) almost bearable at times (operative word being “almost”). Moretz does the wide-eyed, innocent thing well enough, but like every other non-Huppert character, a woefully underwritten script that repeatedly compels her to play an increasingly dim, dim-witted character betrays her.