in partnership
Isabelle Huppert stars as Greta and Chloƫ Grace Moretz as Frances in GRETA, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jonathan Hession / Focus Features

Review: The horror of 'Greta' correlates directly to its roots in reality

“Everyone needs a friend,” reads the quote on the film’s poster. An unassuming, rather sweet sentiment paired with a close-up of a women’s stoic, unreadable face sliced diagonally in half, spewing blood at the seam, a younger woman protruding from it with a look of incredulous horror.

It’s a pretty decent summation of “Greta”, a wildly sweet, then overtly sinister film that oscillates in tone as often as it twists us by heart. Directed and co-written by Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, the film is his first in seven years though he’s had an illustrious career. He won an Oscar for his screenplay “The Crying Game”, directed “Interview with the Vampire” and created Showtime’s “The Borgias”. With “Greta”, Jordan tackles a scarier, far more vicious villain than the IRA, vampires and money-hungry Spaniards: a lonely woman and the rancorous depths of her isolation.

French actress Isabelle Huppert stars as forlorn Greta, a sophisticated European transplant with a mysterious accent and a penchant for losing her handbag. ChloĆ« Grace Moretz is Frances, a young waitress fresh to Manhattan, fresh in grieving the loss of her mother. Their paths cross fatefully, it would seem, when Frances finds Greta’s lost bag on the subway.

They strike an unusual friendship, begot mostly by Frances’ need for a maternal figure and Greta’s striking loneliness as a widow with a daughter who moved to Paris. They spend afternoons together at church and share intimate dinners at Greta’s unusual home tucked in possibly the only quiet courtyard in New York. It would perhaps be more apt to say she resides in Narnia; they register they same foot traffic.

The first thirty minutes of the film are picturesque, glossy and heartwarming. Even so, the sadness in Frankie is met by a very apparent hollowness in Greta. Huppert is a steel trap, a rock-solid alibi, an indecipherable floppy disc, if there’s any other kind. The uneasiness we feel with her on screen never subsides, and once their relationship begins its decomposition, Huppert is nothing but sheer wicked to watch.

Frances attempts to cut Greta from her life to no avail. She stalks the girl’s workplace, follows her roommate home from the bar and sends her young friend intimidating messages with ominous implications. Frances avoids, then reports, then eventually succumbs to her situation, attempting the slow exit, all the while underestimating what Greta has in store for her surrogate daughter.

“Greta” presents an intriguing story told as a modern-day fairy tale, though there is nothing supernatural or mystical here. The scale of its horror correlates directly to its roots in reality. Greta is not a witch with magical powers, drawing young children with potions. She’s a sick woman with mortal abilities and with a perturbed, to put it nicely, outlook on the world around her.

Like a fairy tale in the most traditional sense, each character stays in the lines of its archetype, which may frustrate audiences. “Why would she do that!” you’ll surely shout in your head or whisper to your seatmate, an inevitable sign you’re in a B-movie thriller. When broken down, this is exactly what the film is. The lead-up to Greta’s unraveling is shallow and transparent. We make allowances for this because we want to know the twist and can forgive the superficial build-up for the eventual payout.

There aren’t big thrills here, however. Despite its runtime, it feels like a novella, telling a small, contained story without much deference for anything that deviates away from our leads, due mainly to Huppert’s hypnotic presence on screen. This is both its triumph and its downfall, appealing to low budget horror film fans with a coarse sense of humor and interest in light gore, but otherwise alienating itself from the public at large.