The art of the con man is the art of confidence: to pull off a scam you not only have to gain the confidence of the one you're swindling; you have to radiate confidence yourself. The Grifters, taken from the 1963 Jim Thompson novel, is about three small-time con artists so steeped in the art of deception they can't see how they've conned themselves. Like junkies, they're hooked on the grift--it gives them an almost sexual rush--but they keep telling themselves they can pull out whenever they want and go straight. But without their cons, Lily Dillon (Anjelica Huston), her son Roy Dillon (John Cusack) and his girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening) would barely exists. Working their crooked magic--at the track, where Lily lowers the odds on long shots for her bookie-mobster boss; on trains, where Roy suckers sailors' money with loaded dice; in bedroom and boardroom, where the sexpot Myra hustles suckers for small and big-time profit--these two-bit scammers become potentates of their sordid kingdoms.
Stephen Frear's memorable, invigoratingly unsentimental movie unfolds with a brash confidence of its own. Frears showed his flair for film noir in "Gumshoe" (1971), and his mastery of complex tones in movies as diverse as "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Dangerous Liaisons." The bouncy, sardonic Elmer Bernstein score gives us our first clue to the spin Frears is putting on a classic film noir form: we're invited, at first, to relish the black-comic heartlessness of Thompson's seedy characters, who seem suspended in time between their '40s prototypes and the '90s setting. Full of wonderfully stylized Donald Westlake dialogue that falls just short of camp, "The Grifters" doesn't ask you to like these three scammers, but their conniving chutzpah is mesmerizing. You roll along with the film's jaunty, amoral energy and then Frears gives you something more--a kick in the stomach that turns pulp into tragedy and leaves you slightly stunned.
When Lily Dillon first shows up at Roy's ratty L.A. rented room, you're not sure if she's really his mother. She was only 14 when he was born, and he's never forgiven her for neglecting him. A smart kid, he's squandered his life as a penny-ante "short con" man, posing to the outside world as a matchbook salesman. He doesn't even tell his bedmate Myra what he really does, but she's smart enough not to believe his cover. Myra, a veteran of the "long con"--high risk, big-buck investment scams--thinks he's got the right stuff to be her new partner, while Lily, with the remnants of her limited maternal instincts, wants him to give up the grift. These two predatory women--who in Roy's mind become very much the same woman--engage in a vicious battle for his soul, which he would rather not share with anyone. But he's no match for these "femme fatales': the way they play, not even the most primal holds are barred.
Huston has already won two critics' awards, and with good reason. She's created an indelible monster, at once pitiable and scary--a peroxided, debased Medea. Huston dominates the film, but Bening, an effervescent sex kitten with the soul of a snake, and Cusack, with his brittle self-protectiveness, are spectacular in their own ways. These doomed grifters deserve instant admission into the film noir pantheon.