Neil Jordan’s new movie Greta is a thriller in which a just-graduated young woman (Chloe Grace Moretz), still grieving from the death of her mother, finds herself bedeviled by Greta (Isabelle Huppert), an older woman who initially appears to be a sweet surrogate mom figure but turns out to be a dangerous obsessive. It’s the stuff early-’90s stalker movies were made of, and the throwback angle combined with access to new technology and Jordan’s considerable talent, not to mention a plum role for Huppert, give the movie a buzz of anticipation as it starts to unfold.
That buzz grows dimmer and more erratic as the movie explores the life of Frances (Moretz), who has moved to New York (played mostly by Canada and Ireland) to share a fancy Tribeca apartment with her spoiled best friend Erica (Maika Monroe). The two women speak mostly in awkward exposition, like, well, a couple of middle-aged guys making their best guess at what 22-year-olds sound like. Restless and unsure of herself in the big city, Frances finds a purse abandoned on the 6 train. She tracks down the owner, Huppert’s Greta, who invites her into her charming little house (of undetermined location) for tea. Soon Frances is going to dinner with Greta and helping her adopt a dog, as Erica rolls her eyes over her friend’s weird social engagements.
Erica, shallow and selfish as she seems, turns out to be right; there’s something off about Greta, and once Frances gets weirded out and cuts ties with her, the old woman starts showing up everywhere: at the restaurant where Frances works, or at a bar where Erica is grabbing drinks, texting menacing photos to Frances. To say more about the expected escalation would spoil some of the movie’s pulpy maneuvering.
Then again, those maneuvers don’t add up to much. Despite some fine moments from Huppert, who is always worth watching and clearly having fun here, Greta doesn’t take things very far—or, the parlance of Futurama, it doesn’t go too far enough. The first chunk of it moves slowly, but not carefully; Frances becomes disillusioned with Greta in an instant, in a scene whose creepy charge rapidly dissipates. Just as quickly, Greta becomes obviously unhinged; there’s little sense of seduction or betrayal, which leaves Jordan trying to juice some middling scenes with thriller tricks.
A few smart touches update the old stalker-thriller formula, especially when the movie focuses on how digital technology aids today’s modern stalkers. Greta seems like a harmless old lady when she fumbles with her flip-phone, until the movie reveals, with a shiver, that she’s perfectly adept at Facebook research. There’s enough digital deception in play to raise provocative questions about whether social media has made stalking both more accessibly dangerous and, in a weird way, more socially acceptable (who hasn’t joked about internet-stalking an ex or a stranger?). These are not questions the movie turns out to be particularly interested in, and fair enough; Jordan and his collaborators seem to be after something more visceral.
As a visceral experience, though, the movie is relatively tame, with a few admittedly great squirms that gesture toward a bolder, weirder movie. Moreover, despite some contemporary touches, Greta sometimes feels like a screenplay that’s been dusted off but not fully updated from an era when stalker thrillers were more common. The younger characters text each other pictures, but don’t seem to post them to Instagram or Snapchat. In a fight with her dad, Frances makes reference to a particular Bill Clinton quote that’s almost as old as she is. I’ve heard the movie described as sort of knowingly bad–not so bad it’s good, but so indifferent to set-up and normal human behavior that it’s actually clever. But how many bad lines or off moments does a movie accumulate before it’s actually just kind of bad?
Reading the more enthusiastic reactions to Greta, hailing it as a delightful B-movie, I felt puzzlement. Were others really getting that jazzed about an enjoyably trashy final 30 minutes after an hour-plus of moderately well-executed, lightly stupid competence? Then I felt a bolt of recognition; excusing a long stretch of bad dialogue and clumsy characterization was exactly how I reacted to Brian De Palma’s Passion, a movie I insisted didn’t really need to be very good given its most glorious De Palma indulgences. But when that movie finally uncorks, it’s full of long takes and split-screen and elaborately choreographed murder, nothing like the stray gonzo moments of Greta. It also stars Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, who make a lot more of their shaky material than Chloe Grace Moretz. I think one reason I’ve had trouble locating the intentionality of Greta‘s “knowing” badness is Moretz; she somehow overacts and underacts at once, placing lots of physical emphasis without ever finding a character. She stilts the movie before it has a chance to goof on whoever her character is supposed to be (her clearest trait: making dumb decisions).
It also probably doesn’t help that I saw Greta not long after watching Climax, Gaspar Noe’s new…thriller? Musical? Horror movie? Docudrama? Anti-drug PSA? Whatever it is, it opens the same day as Jordan’s film in a few cities, and it’s about all hell breaking loose at a dance troupe’s post-rehearsal party when someone spikes their sangria with LSD. Noe’s build-up is just as hypnotizing as his freak-out; the movie begins with a series of interviews with his dancer characters (shown on an in-camera television, with stacks of VHS types on either side, a proscenium of Noe’s possible influences on this movie, including the original Suspiria). They’re all played by actual dancers, largely first-time actors but led by the wonderful Sofia Boutella, a dancer who has moved to impressive (and often physical) performances in genre movies like Star Trek Beyond, Atomic Blonde, and Hotel Artemis. Following the interviews, Noe observes the group in motion, with a full-length dance sequence, the fruits of the characters’ apparent labor. There’s a second dance number during the party itself, as the dancers cut loose and perform little solos, shot largely from overhead. Noe’s floaty-long-take style turns out to be a great fit for musical, however briefly Climax resembles one.
But the reverie turns dark when the drugs kick in and the dancers start turning on each other, and in some cases on themselves. With the movie’s single location, ominous shifts in tone, and rooms upon rooms of disturbances, Climax is basically a haunted-house horror movie without any demons or ghosts, just people fucking their own shit up. There may not be much going on under the surface, but it’s a singular experience. While there’s no need to pit thrillers against each other in a contest of edginess, after Climax’s slices, dices, writhing, and flames, the sight of Isabelle Huppert knocking over a table isn’t exactly the height of deliciously over-the-top transgressions, no matter how GIF-able it is.
Greta is, at least nominally, set in the real world, and touches upon a lot of plausibly “real” issues, of stalking and trust and whether we’d led Isabelle Huppert into our lives just because she seems fabulous. Climax is feature-length freak-out that purports to be based on a true story and might be total bullshit. Neither movie needs to feel real. But in a world where several movies a month get effusively praised as “bonkers,” the genuinely upsetting and not especially GIF-friendly Climax at least feels more honestly nutty.
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