One of the great, perverse pleasures in movies is watching people play games with each other — mean, selfish, manipulative games. There’s plenty of game-playing in real life, of course, only sometimes it’s difficult to see. But in The Grifters, the riveting new movie based on Jim Thompson’s 1963 novel, emotional brinkmanship reaches a new level of down-and-dirty clarity.

Written by Donald E. Westlake and directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons), the film is about the intertwined lives of three smooth-as-silk con artists. Lilly (Anjelica Huston), a tough broad who never smiles unless she’s trying to wheedle something, has been working for the mob for years. Her job is fairly mechanical: She travels around to assorted racetracks, betting thousands of dollars on the long shots in order to lower the odds. That way, if one of them should come in, the thuggish bookie she works for won’t take such a beating. Lilly is an ace at what she does, but she’s too wily and proud to be a mere functionary. She isn’t above skimming a little off the top — ripping off the rip-off artists — and she has a suitcase full of cash to show for her efforts.

Lilly has an estranged son, Roy (John Cusack), who was born when she was only 14. She was such a young and careless mother that he left home, mostly out of disgust, while still in his teens. Now, Roy practices the ”short con” — nothing but one-shot trick maneuvers, like flashing a $20 bill at a bartender to buy a beer and then slipping him a $10 instead. As nickle-and- dime schemers go, Roy has a fairly lucrative operation: He keeps his stash of bills hidden behind the clown paintings in his apartment.

Roy’s girlfriend, Myra (Annette Bening), is a leggy vamp with a twinkle in her eye. Her hustle can be disarmingly basic: Instead of paying the rent, she seduces the landlord. At the same time, she has big plans. She was once involved in an elaborate scam that netted tens of thousands of dollars, and she’s eager to get back to big-time swindles.

For a while, Myra is under the delusion that Roy is a legitimate working stiff. And Roy, a furtive loner, does nothing to discourage her perception. He’s happy going out with a woman who doesn’t really know him. When Myra learns that he’s a fellow ”grifter,” she tries to lure him into becoming her new partner. Meanwhile, Lilly, having stumbled back into Roy’s life, gazes with lethal hostility at this rival for her son’s affections. The movie is the story of three compulsive tricksters who are threatened, even destroyed, by their mutual involvement. Self-sufficient to the max, they become vulnerable the moment they let themselves depend on anyone else.

Unlike last year’s misbegotten After Dark, My Sweet, The Grifters makes no attempt to camouflage the pulpy, synthetic heart of Thompson’s material. The ) movie isn’t just ”taut,” it’s exhilaratingly lean. The filmmakers understand that Thompson’s appeal is his low-down, film-noir skunkiness, the way he reduces all human interaction to primal emotions of lust and jealousy and desperation. Even so, what’s funny, shrewd, and finally powerful about The Grifters is the way it mirrors both the hard-shelled hauteur of its characters — life as a series of fabulously nasty gestures — and the raw emotion that lends their outward demeanor its animating force.

Updated to present-day Los Angeles, the story has nevertheless been given a beautifully burnished, twilight-at-noon palette that’s at once old-fashioned and hallucinatory. Even as you’re staring at the contemporary cars and stores and wardrobes, The Grifters has a preserved-in-amber timelessness that evokes the underworld pictures of the ’50s. The film seems to be taking place in both eras at once — and that’s the way it works emotionally, too. Frears keeps the camera very close to his actors, encouraging them to dig into the human core of the material. On one level, the Lilly-Roy relationship is absurd (no mother and son ever talked this tough to each other), yet Huston and Cusack bring it such conviction that the relationship is like a hard-boiled stylization of Oedipal tensions.

Cusack, I think, is going to be a very big star. With his lanky physique and born-to-play-Jughead features, he has always been a great camera subject, and the remarkable thing about his acting here is how much emotion he’s able to suggest simply by what he withholds, by his poker-faced reserve. You can sense that Roy’s inclination toward the short con — the con without attachments — is linked to his need to keep the women in his life at arm’s length. His screwy mother has doomed him to isolation. Annette Bening plays Myra as a not-quite-fatale femme, a lovable tootsie who’s a lot smarter than she lets on. She suggests a Marilyn Monroe with more brains. Myra is a tease, all right, yet she isn’t malicious about it. She turns her power over men into sheer, giggly play.

It’s Anjelica Huston who gives the film its emotional gravity. There’s almost nothing likable about Lilly. She’s callused over; she perseveres, period. But Huston, looking weirdly like a drag queen in her puffy, bleached-blond hair, plays her with such indomitable negative charisma that in the end the character doesn’t win your affection so much as your respect. What you respond to in Huston’s performance is Lilly’s chameleonic ability to master her surroundings. She’ll do whatever it takes, whether that means playing the good servant with her terrorizing boss (Pat Hingle) or, in the film’s shocking climax, proving that she knows her con-man son better than he knows himself — and that she’ll exploit the most forbidden emotions in the world if she has to. In The Grifters, survival of the fittest is more than a law of nature. It’s the ultimate game. A

The Grifters
  • Movie
  • 119 minutes