‘Greta’ Review: Isabelle Huppert excels in this entertaining mess

Huppert goes for broke and elevates a painfully mediocre thriller into something kind of mesmerizing

Courtesy of TIFF

Editor’s Note: This review originally ran as part of our coverage of September’s Toronto International Film Festival; ‘Greta’ hits theaters this weekend.

You could probably use Nicolas Cage’s career as a blueprint in order to a Richter scale for joyously campy performances. On the one end, you have his dramatic work, which can be achingly beautiful (even in Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, he manages to strike that chord early on), and on the other… well, you’ve got mid-aughts “I’ve got to do this for the paycheck but I’d still like to have some fun” Cage, where the guy just doesn’t give a fuck about being “over the top” in the minds of others.

If we were to apply that logic to Isabelle Huppert’s role as the titular character in Neil Jordan’s Greta, she’d probably land somewhere on the latter end of that spectrum, as she just goes for broke and single-handedly elevates a painfully mediocre thriller into something kind of mesmerizing.

Huppert’s not the main character of the film, though she is the main reason to watch it. That honor goes to Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz, playing a variation on the same sort of post-college 20-something that she has ever since she aged out of YA movies) who is kind-hearted and pure to a fault despite living in the worst city on Earth (just kidding!). She lives in Manhattan with her roommate (a fun Maika Monroe, getting closer and closer to mindwiping that Independence Day sequel out of everybody’s minds), and she’s a bit of a rube. She finds a handbag on the subway, and instead of stealing it (boo) or turning it to the MTA (yay!), she decides to return it to the woman who owns it herself. That person turns out to be Greta (Huppert), a French widow living in Brooklyn who leads a very lonely and sad life. Her daughter’s moved to Paris, her dog has passed away, and she finds a kindred spirit in Frances, who is suffering from her mother’s untimely death.

The two become fast friends, and begin to spend a ton of time together. If you walked out during those first 20 minutes, you’d have a very different idea of what the movie was like: Perhaps you’d assume it were some sort of indie dramedy where the two would learn lessons from one another and that you’d be comfortable taking your mother to see it. But, one night, when cooking dinner alongside Greta, Frances searches through the widow’s cabinets looking for candles and discovers something that throws her off balance: Rows upon rows of the same purse that she found, each with a different sticky note clinging to it. Each of those notes has a different name and a phone number on it, and she goes through the bags until she finds her own name listed as well. What follows is a spectacularly silly stalking thriller that goes off the deep end in its final half-hour so much that I left with theater with a massive grin.

This is Jordan’s first film since the vampire drama Byzantium back in 2012, and it was well-worth the wait. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly well-directed or stylish in any sense: The pacing is often atrocious and the movie takes so fucking long to show its true colors that you’ve got to wonder what his thinking was here. His views on how young people live in this day and age are so backwards and silly you’ve got to wonder if the few notes that do ring true are a product of Monroe and Moretz reminding him that Ronald Reagan isn’t president anymore, even if they do still own cassette tapes.

But it’s Huppert and a very game Moretz that manage to make all of these moments stick — a piano lesson here, a little dance around Greta’s house here — and help to bring the ludicrous tone to the forefront. I can’t tell if you’re supposed to chuckle when Jordan uses Huppert as a monster at the end of a jump scare, but it entertained me regardless, and I guess that’s a good way to describe all of Greta: A consummately entertaining mess that you absolutely should check out.