Neil Jordan's glossy thriller Greta has some unintentionally funny moments, and some intentional ones. One of the latter happens when a spoiled trust-fund kid named Erica (Maika Monroe) examines photos of her that were snapped by a mysterious stalker named Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert). Pausing to give props to the unhinged woman's photography skills, she exclaims, "I look badass!"
Greta's primary target is actually Erica's roommate, the shy and soulful Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz). But one kind of wishes the crass Erica were the movie's heroine, because her backhanded compliment sums up Greta the film: Its sense of logic is missing, but it looks damn good.
Cowriter-director Jordan, whose career has taken him from The Crying Game to Interview With the Vampire to Byzantium, knows how to shoot Manhattan so it exudes both privilege and moody menace. Greta even includes a few eerie sequences of altered consciousness that recall his underrated In Dreams (1999).
Yet, despite these promising elements and a talented cast, the movie just doesn't work. It feels like a meditation on the possibility of thrillers, an array of stylistic exercises in search of a compelling connection.
It all starts with an act of kindness: Frances, who is grieving her mother, finds an elegant handbag on the subway. She returns it to the owner, Greta, a Frenchwoman who plays Liebestraum on the piano while muttering poignant things about loneliness. Greta, too, is bereaved, and the two women bond — until Frances discovers Greta has a cupboard full of identical handbags. She's the platonic maternal version of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.
This is the sort of reveal that most thrillers save for the second or third act; here, it happens too early to be a spoiler. The leads have barely established their relationship when Greta becomes a full-on stalker. But, because we don't feel the intimate threat that Greta represents to Frances, the scary scenes involving her come across as ludicrously overplayed. As we wait in vain for twists, Jordan's jump scares inspire less fear than laughter.
It shouldn't have been this way. If there's any refined 66-year-old Frenchwoman who can strike fear into moviegoers' hearts, it's Huppert. She was delicious as a stone-cold sociopath in Elle, and her musical fixation in Greta feels like a deliberate callback to her derangement in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher.
But, while those movies committed to something, this one seems to be throwing plot points at the wall. Once it's finished attempting to scare us with nebulous threats, Greta lurches abruptly into a high-camp mode that Huppert exploits to the hilt, pirouetting impishly as Greta reveals her true nature. Meanwhile, our nominal protagonist, never fleshed out by the screenplay or Moretz's stiff performance, becomes little more than a prop by the end of the film.
Thrillers appeal to filmmakers because they're cheap to make and good showcases for style. But, as Steven Soderbergh's Unsane proved last year, cheap doesn't mean easy, and throwing a psycho and an ingénue together doesn't guarantee that viewers will be on the edge of their seats. Building suspense takes patience that Jordan doesn't display here.
It's a shame, because a thriller about a young woman who sought out a surrogate mother, only to find herself being literally smothered, could have been both creepy and funny. It could have made sly comments about the generation gap and helicopter parenting. Instead, Greta's likely future claim to fame is the bloodiest scene ever to feature a cookie cutter — but hey, that is pretty badass.