The Grifters is, of course, based on a Jim Thompson novel, and it’s one of the very few adaptations of his books that actually works. It’s the only one that works as an adaptation when updated to a contemporary setting, because so many of his books are set during the Depression and that’s an important part of the setting. The director, Stephen Frears, was careful not to leave in too many visual clues about the era, although there is some ‘80s music and Stephen King hardbacks on a bookcase in it.
Frears had at this point done My Beautiful Laundrette, which was unexpectedly a big art-house smash in the US, and The Hit, a British noir that is similar in some ways to The Grifters. His noir sensibility made him a good fit for the material, although Frears has said he got the project off the back of Laundrette. Martin Scorsese had initially been set to direct the film, but he was too busy, at that time dealing with the backlash from The Last Temptation of Christ and getting ready to film Goodfellas.
The story is about a bunch of con artists, and especially a mother and son. John Cusack plays the male lead, Ray Dillon. In some ways it’s the most important film of Cusack’s career: the first one where he wasn’t a teen heartthrob or college kid, but in a mature role like the Cusack we now know. He went after the role because of being a big fan of the book. In the making-of documentary, Frears says that the only actors he was interested in were Cusack or Robert Downey Jr. (Downey was also moving towards meatier parts after being in many teen films, including some with John Hughes.)
Dillon’s mother Lily, played by Angelica Huston in one of her very finest roles, comes back into his life. Unfortunately for him, Lily can’t stand Ray’s girlfriend Myra, played by Annette Benning who does an even better Gloria Grahame here than in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Very quickly they go to war behind his back, when Myra finds out that Lily has a lot of money. They’re all schemers, so things get complicated. There is also a great array of character actors in smaller roles.
Of all the Thompson adaptations, The Grifters is the only one that gets the desperation that his books always have, so much so that the final shot is a literal descent into hell via elevator. I feel it might be a wink to the way that neither adaptation of The Getaway includes that part of the book. Another great thing about Thompson’s novels is they are all heavily influenced by Greek tragedy and mythology, most notably The Getaway, which has an homage to the River Styx in it’s final chapters. The Grifters is clearly influenced by the story of Oedipus.
By the time the film was made, Thompson (who was a fine screenwriter in his own right) had died due to alcoholism, but they got Donald E. Westlake in to write the script. Westlake is probably better known as Richard Stark, famous pulp fiction writer best known for the Parker book series with a hit man as the central character. The most famous adaptation of a Parker novel was, of course, Point Blank. Westlake originally turned it down, but Frears convinced him when he said the story is about the women. The script follows that direction, which is probably why the actresses got nominated for Oscars and Cusack didn’t—they have the meatier roles.
The Grifters is a great and twisted adaptation that has stood the test of time. I hadn’t seen it for several years, and now I know that I undervalued it a bit at first, because rewatching it really knocked me out. It’s also a film that kickstarted the ‘90s Thompson revival, and is far better than the overrated After Dark, My Sweet. It has a great Elmer Bernstein score as well.
There’s really just one feature on the disc, a new hour-long documentary featuring interviews with Frears, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, editor Mick Audsley and producers, but none of the cast.