Grifters [1990]

Annette Bening twists like a mink on a leash through Stephen Frears's adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel. This may be the perfect trope for the moral hysteria that coils around a mother, her son, and his girlfriend in this slender but highly pleasurable neo-noir. Small in effect and local in scope, the film is about small-fry, attractive, bloodless con artists who view the world as neatly split between ropers and suckers, grifters and squares. "Grifter's got an irresistible urge to beat a guy that's wise," an old-timer tells Roy (John Cusack). And yet the three characters here--played by Angelica Huston, Cusack, and Bening--only beat the innocent: Lilly (Huston) gigs at the track for a mobster named Bobo, putting wads of cash on long-shot horses to even out the odds. Roy, her son, swindles citizens by dimes and degrees, flashing twenties at bars then paying for his beer with tens. His girlfriend, Myra (Bening), is hustling herself, her salad days as a long-con roper behind her. Theirs is a world of gut punches and smart lines, and the adrenaline these cheats and chiselers live by is palpable onscreen. But a larger canvas? Maybe it's there as a parallel universe. "What do you sell again?" Myra asks Roy, the matchbook salesman. "Self-confidence," he says, a wry allusion to the confidence game all three of them are playing. The movie boasts dazzling turns by Bening, Cusack, and especially Huston, whose mère fatale breaks new ground for noir. --Lyall Bush

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