Obsession Turns Into Terror in Neil Jordan’s ‘Greta’

Greta” creates the claustrophobic sensation of being stalked. It takes some classic thriller ingredients and uses them to tell a story that may seem familiar to obsessive movie watchers, but is delivered with great skill by director Neil Jordan. Chloë Grace Moretz and Isabelle Huppert bring the material to life with one of those onscreen relationships that begins creepily and slowly turns into murderous terror. This is a thriller done in an old-school fashion. You can either smirk at its B-movie roots or admire how skillfully, and with what craft, Jordan pulls it off.

Moretz is Frances McCullen, a young woman who has moved to New York from Boston. She makes a living as a waitress and lives with outgoing roommate Erica (Maika Monroe). Frances is escaping from the depression brought on by the death of her mother. The big city and constant work seem like a good distraction. One day while riding the subway Frances comes across an abandoned handbag. Determined to give it back, Frances finds an address for its owner. The owner turns out to be Greta (Huppert), an older French woman who lives alone in a nice carriage house, playing Liszt on the piano and thinking about her daughter. There’s a strange thumping sound, but Greta insists it’s the neighbors. To Erica’s annoyance, Frances, being ever so naïve, befriends Greta and joins her for outings, including dog searching at a local pound. But soon the relationship takes on a weird turn as Greta starts constantly, if not insanely, texting Frances at all hours, calling and calling. When Frances tries to cut her loose, Greta suddenly begins appearing at work. The older woman insists she is simply lonely and needs a friend, but this is going beyond mere clinging. Frances begins to realize she’s slowly being trapped, and trying to truly get away could have deadly consequences.

By now you realize this is a variation on a classic thriller tool, the stalker. Obsession is such a primal feeling that it has a natural way of fueling so many guilty pleasures whether in pulpy literature or trashy movies. Jordan, the director of sharp thrillers like “The Crying Game” and fantastical bloodbaths like “Interview with the Vampire,” directs “Greta” with the fun abandon of a craftsman getting dirty. This is Jordan’s first feature since producing the Showtime historical series “The Borgias,” and it feels like a filmmaker happy to make something that’s pure unpretentious cinema. Like some of Brian De Palma’s thrillers, it’s the tone and style that make it work. Jordan and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey keep the settings small and confined, turning apartments into chambers of dread and subways into paranoid traps. Specific scenes are examples of how to generate tension through editing. For example there’s a great scene where Frances is at work and looks out a window to find Greta staring at her from across the street. The effect is unnerving, as well as during a scene where Frances thinks she is safe on a subway train and then…

This is one of those thrillers like Stephen King’s “Misery,” where a very simple idea fuels a premise that gets wilder and wilder as the story progresses. Greta is the nightmare version of every clingy person you’ve ever had to deal with. Isabelle Huppert, one of the great modern actresses, plays Greta with a menacing calmness, at first seeming welcoming and then turning into a total monster. It would be quite a bad move to spoil where the movie goes past the second act. How Frances begins discovering that Greta is not all that she claims to be is part of the strange fun of this film. The acting elevates the material as well. Huppert’s best scene comes when she reserves a table at Frances’s workplace. A confrontation follows that turns into a great and eerie freakout as Greta explodes. Because Huppert is so good she elevates what could have been schlock into a truly disturbing, visceral performance. Chloë Grace Moretz defines the quintessential innocent in distress. She has the welcoming eyes and face of the kind of character that always stumbles into bad decisions, putting her in the path of a psycho. Moretz plays the role so sweetly that we feel even more anxiety when Greta unleashes her full wrath. Maika Monroe is pitch-perfect as the less naïve friend whose warnings turn out to be more right than she would like. There is of course a parent involved, Frances’s dad, played by Colm Feore, who wants to reconnect with his daughter even as she finds herself entrapped by Greta.

There are a few moments where blood is spilled in “Greta,” it’s almost inevitable (there is a chop brilliantly timed). But the beauty of this evil little thriller is that Jordan gives a lesson to all these flashy, Blumhouse-style movies flooding the market in how to put us on edge with pure craft. Sure, the plot itself is nuts, but that’s the point. When Frances starts searching for answers to Greta’s identity, when Greta dances darkly with a syringe to a classical melody, when the trap doors close, we believe it. Even when the third act turns into demented mayhem, it’s done with the restraint of someone who wants to get under your skin as opposed to just shock. The final shot would make De Palma proud.

“Greta” is the rare old-school thriller done well by an exceptional director. It envelopes the viewer in dreadful atmosphere, made even more effective by a great cast. It’s the kind of movie you walk out from watching over your shoulder.

Greta” opens March 1 in theaters nationwide.