Imagine a run-of-the-mill, low-rent teen movie thriller made for the art house crowd and you start to get an idea of what a bizarre cinematic crossbreed "Greta" is.
At his provocative height, Irish director Neil Jordan could bring a story about race and gender fluidity to a Best Picture nomination, as he did in 1992 with "The Crying Game." Today, however, he hasn’t made a relevant film since the last century. It should come as little surprise, then, that "Greta"—well-made and preposterous in equal measure—seems so desperate.
With a premise as basic as a Hollywood scream machine, Chloë Grace Moretz ("Suspiria") plays Frances, a young adult New Yorker who falls victim to an unexpected stalker, a seemingly sophisticated but lonely older woman named Greta (French acting legend Isabelle Huppert, "Elle").
Picking up a forgotten purse from a subway seat, Frances returns the bag to its owner, Greta, at her home. Frances is still grieving the death of her mother, and Greta is estranged from her daughter—so, natch, they instantly fill those surrogate roles. It’s all a snare set by Greta, however, who has more cruel, possessive notions of what maternal bonding should look like.
The whole setup is belabored, eliciting more impatience than tension as you’re waiting for "Greta" to get to where it is inevitably going. It might be fascinating if these characters were any deeper than archetypes but, with familiar backstories and a compulsory personal connection, the forced plot mechanics churn forward with obligatory beats rather than psychological intrigue.
The performances don’t invest anything beyond surface level, either, but sympathies to Moretz who’s given some flat dialogue, two key relationships (a best friend roomie, and a dad) that exist as narrative catalysts and expository devices, while being required to make ill-advised decisions when Frances should (and does) know better. Odder still is Huppert who, despite the delicious trappings of the part and being no stranger to tantalizing turns, feels weirdly out of her element.
These women never seem credible as the scenario increasingly hinges on stupidity, occasionally punctuated by silly moments that play like a Saturday Night Live digital short parody of the genre.
This would all be easily, instantly dismissed if the filmmaking wasn’t so lush and confident. The pyscho-horror aesthetic is thick and rich, with cinematography from Seamus McGarvey that evokes classic Hitchcock and early Polanski. Javier Navarrete’s score is a mix of attacking strings and queasy ones, and Greta’s home has a cozy, affluent character set off by a torture basement—perfect for that independently wealthy sociopath who sets public transit murder traps.
There are nuggets here of what could be: a creepy chewing-gum taunt by Greta being one, a clever texting-deception being another, but an inherent laziness in the script (including a brief, gimmicky misdirection stunt about one hour in) doesn’t refine these pockets of potential.
I’m as primed for suspense and outlandish melodrama as the next popcorn-muncher, but no matter how precise and gorgeous the craft may be, when a film isn’t convincing, it isn’t thrilling. "Greta" is neither, which makes it a cheap movie that doesn’t look it.