'Greta' is bloody good fun thanks to its stellar female cast
By Andrea Thompson
The true power in “Greta” doesn't exactly lie in the horror we are capable of inflicting on each other. Rather, it's about just how easy it can be to inflict that horror. And while director Neil Jordan will probably always be best known for bringing brooding vampires to a whole new level in “Interview with the Vampire,” “Greta” is another welcome addition to his horror work.
The film doesn't even wait for the title credits to let us know what we were getting into (in case we had any doubts), building over the partner logos. When it opens in a train station, it's rather reminiscent of “Suspiria,” only to have the music wind down to a gentle calm. It makes sense, since the terror here begins with the most mundane of items – a woman's purse, which the demure Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) discovers on a train.
To the dismay of her blonde, more experienced roommate Erica (Maika Monroe, who was the followed in “It Follows”), Frances decides to return it to its owner. “Where I'm from, that's what we do,” she responds over Erica's objections. Musings over whether Boston is really that friendly don't last long once Frances meets Greta (Isabelle Huppert). The two women quickly bond, given that Greta has lost her daughter and Frances is not only bereft of a mother, but estranged from the father she feels has moved on too quickly. And never fear, Huppert sounding unnatural in English is eventually explained.
This is where “Greta” takes the first of a few unexpected turns. The rest of the film is not Frances slowly coming to terms with the fact that her newfound surrogate mother is not what she seems. Soon after they become friends, Frances discovers a multitude of purses in Greta's apartment, which have apparently all been returned by various people. What is most frightening about what happens next is not about how much Frances does wrong, but how much she does right. She leaves Greta's apartment immediately after her discovery, cuts off all contact, is smart enough to disbelieve Greta's attempts to explain, and refuses to take her calls or return her messages. She also tells Greta off very firmly in person.
Greta's behavior starts to escalate almost immediately. When the calls, texts, and flowers don't work, she shows up at the restaurant where Frances works to stare at her through the window, and Frances immediately calls the police. Unfortunately, since Greta is standing on a sidewalk across the street on public property, they can't do much of anything. When Frances tries to get a restraining order, she learns just how backed up the system is in NYC. There are no witnesses when Greta shows up to spit gum in her hair. Even when Greta shows up to force Frances to wait on her and ends up overturning the table and shouting at her, she's released soon after she's taken into custody.
The film really shines in this buildup, as we see the painful effects stalking can have on a victim. Frances grows increasingly fearful, unable to feel safe at her work, on the street, and even in her own home as Greta's behavior becomes more unhinged. A sequence where Greta threatens Erica, following her unseen while sending pictures to Frances in real time, gives the kinds of chills that suspense movies are made of.
It's the latter half of the film that threatens to devolve into pure camp, as Greta takes the most drastic of actions to keep Frances to herself. Much of the suspense has to die after this; even with Greta's deceptions, people are going to take note of Frances's disappearance sooner rather than later. And with all the police attention Greta's harassment has brought, it seems ridiculous that Frances would be missing for too long. But thank goodness for Huppert, who's able to ground the most extreme and unlikely of circumstances in a recognizable – even almost believable – reality.
Jordan is clearly committed to not just focus on his female characters, but let them shine. It's not just that Moretz and Huppert are clearly having a ball just playing off each other or that Monroe proves far more capable than women like her generally are in any kind of film, it's the smaller details. The men are not only generally inept, the women have no problem believing that Frances is being stalked. Their sometimes casual acceptance of her situation is in stark contrast to various men, who tell Frances to try to ignore Greta, or give her other various degrees of useless advice.
Greta herself could also use the kind of expansion that even Huppert isn't able to give. She is able to depict Greta as the most frightening kind of unhinged for being recognizable, but the film also mostly writes her off as unstable rather than delving more into what contributed to that instability. While Greta's relationship with her daughter is explored, her relationship with her late husband and other relatives are not. How did her marriage come to be, and did it really end in the offhand way mentioned? Or did Greta's upbringing inflict the same kind of trauma? The fact that these questions go unanswered is it own kind of fun in making Greta more of an unknowable enigma, but the drawback is by the end she becomes kind of Michael Myers-esque in her ability to rebound. That is also its own kind of fun, and the fact that it's not anything worse is due to the strength of its leads. But even Moretz and Huppert are unable to bring greatness to a second act that becomes too much of a departure from the haunting realism that preceded it.