There’s a scene from Greta that’s been playing on a loop in my mind for weeks. You may have glimpsed it in the trailer — it’s the moment when Isabelle Huppert pettily throws a glass of wine to the floor, then proceeds to furiously overturn her table and marches towards the naive ingenue waitress played by Chloe Grace Moretz until she has to be physically restrained.
If only the rest of director Neil Jordan’s suspense thriller held up to that brief glimmer of compelling madness. The problem with Greta is that it both does too much and not enough. It never regains the campy absurdity of that climactic scene, nor does it sustain subtle tension and unease in service of a well-earned twist. It vacillates in the middle, never committing to one or the other.
But let’s back up for a second. When we first meet Frances (Moretz), she’s introduced as a new-to-New-York-City hopeful crashing with her spoiled former college roommate Erica (Maika Monroe, who sparkles in this less-than-worthy vehicle) in the Tribeca loft that daddy bought. Having recently lost her mother, Frances is adrift — her relationship with her own father is rocky; she objects to his new girlfriend — and in search of someone to give her some parental affection. So, when she picks up a woman’s purse left behind on the subway, she quickly returns it. The owner, Greta (Huppert), appears as a French sophisticate to Frances’ untrained eyes — she plays piano, makes soupe de poisson, and wears chic hats! But as the two become closer, it soon becomes clear that Greta’s motives are a lot more sinister than they first appeared. She’s evil.
Moretz and Huppert are convincing in their respective roles. The former oozes wide-eyed nice girl cotton-candy clouds of earnestness, so much so that it comes as a shock when we learn she’s supposed to be from Boston, and not some idyllic farm in Minnesota. What person who grew up in a bustling city would actually go out of their way to return a stranger’s belongings, instead of just handing it to the authorities? (Or, maybe I just watched too much Seinfeld as a child...) Still, that’s the vibe Jordan is clearly going for, and Moretz nails it. Her emotions are constantly brimming in her eyes, on the verge of spilling out in vulnerable tears at any single act of kindness. And yet, when Greta shows her true nature, it unleashes an inner strength that somehow meshes with what we’ve seen so far.
Huppert, on the other hand, plays the kind of crazy that only she can master. There’s something off about Greta from the start, a feeling that slowly builds until we, like Frances, get caught up on what’s going on. Once that happens, all bets are off. Huppert morphs into a cackling sprite of a stalker, someone who would be completely appealing to watch if the rest of the film could match her.
Another welcome performance comes from Monroe, who turns a walking rich girl stereotype into welcome and surprisingly nuanced comic relief.
This is a film whose parts are far more rich than the assembled whole. Just take the super extra moment when Frances cuts off Greta’s finger with a cutesie cookie cutter. That’s the kind of thing that turns a subpar thriller into quirky camp classic. But rather than leaning into that, Jordan instead veers into obvious, rote stops on the suspense roadmap. The first half of the film is the strongest — but it promises a lot and fails to deliver.
Still, there is something refreshing about a plot like this centering largely around three women, with no obvious love interest or sexual tension.
Ultimately, the film feels like a stylized wannabe Hansel and Gretel, only in this case, the witch is more keen on risotto than roasted children. And much like the gingerbread house from that story, it looks more appetizing than it tastes — but that’s not to say you shouldn’t take a bite, say, for a drunk movie night with your girlfriends. If nothing else, it’s a good excuse not to do those inconvenient good deeds.