The abode of Greta Hideg (played by Isabelle Huppert), the kindly seeming French widow at the heart of the new film Greta, is a Brooklyn real-estate agent’s dream. Tucked away in a little alley, recessed behind the other buildings, and complete with a piano and a lovely kitchen, it’s like something out of an urban fairy tale—which is, indeed, exactly what Greta is. But the movie isn’t one of those warm and fuzzy stories in which everyone learns a lesson and gets a happy ending. Greta is more of a modern Hansel and Gretel, and Greta’s place is the gingerbread house: inviting on the outside and filled with all sorts of strange terrors on the inside.
The new film from Neil Jordan, who co-wrote it with Ray Wright, is the director’s most plainly enjoyable in more than a decade. Greta is a ghoulish little thriller that takes the “stalker from hell” formula that Hollywood enjoyed so much in the 1980s and ’90s (think Fatal Attraction or Single White Female) and spruces it up by casting Huppert, one of the most transfixing cinema actresses alive. Nominated for an Oscar two years ago for Elle, Huppert is no stranger to creeping menace. But here Jordan dials the anxiety up to comical levels, casting her as a placid-appearing mother figure who becomes dangerously obsessed with her new young friend, Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz).
Frances is a wide-eyed innocent who just moved to the big city, and the unreality of her situation is underlined by the faux–New York sets (the movie was largely shot in Dublin and Toronto, and it shows). She’s staying in a fancy Tribeca loft with her hard-partying roommate, Erica (Maika Monroe), but spends most of the early chunk of the film in a funk, because her mother recently died and she’s grown distant from her father (Colm Feore). Greta reels Frances in by abandoning a purse on the subway; when Frances the Good Samaritan brings it back to her, Greta’s calm, maternal energy wins the girl over.
Greta’s first act is plodding. The script is exposition-heavy and often clunkily delivered by Moretz. While Huppert is always a delight to watch, it feels like she’s going through the motions as Greta sets her honey trap with morning walks, pleasant dinners, and many French-accented maxims. The faint sense of unease in the air, combined with the surrealism of a soundstage Big Apple, suggests something dark is afoot. On her first visit to Greta’s home, Frances hears loud banging from behind a wall; Greta blames it on the neighbors and their renovations, sighing, “I swear they’re building an ark in there.”
Eventually, things take a disturbing turn, and Greta becomes a gleeful bit of nonsense rather than a dull one. As Frances realizes that her new sexagenarian pal might not be entirely honest and tries to distance herself, Greta starts following the girl around, appearing as a jolting jump scare behind every street corner and on every city bus. Huppert is a remarkable and nuanced actress, but she’s always had a special gift for onscreen intimidation, especially in English-language films such as I Heart Huckabees. As Greta turns from genial to peculiar to downright scary, Huppert makes a full meal of every transformation, and it’s enough to justify the price of admission.
It’s a shame that Moretz is nowhere near her equal. This is another solid project the actress has been involved with, and she clearly has excellent taste in directors (having recently worked with Lynn Shelton, Olivier Assayas, Desiree Akhavan, and Luca Guadagnino). But as in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, she gives a disarmingly flat performance for a character who’s supposed to be an audience surrogate. In Cameron Post, that approach fit the film’s tone; here, Moretz can’t match up to Huppert’s imperious charms. Still, Jordan has just enough tricks up his sleeve to keep the story interesting.
The last act of Greta descends into full-blown horror, with a couple of hilariously gory flourishes and other straightforwardly traumatic moments. A shambolic Stephen Rea (a regular in Jordan’s films) shuffles into the action as a private eye looking to stir up some extra trouble, but no matter what’s thrown at her, Huppert’s Greta rises to the occasion, equal parts silly and serious. If Moretz were as compelling, this could’ve been a genuinely terrific cat-and-mouse thriller. As it is, Greta is more of a Terminator movie, with the other characters doing their best to get out of Huppert’s way for 98 enjoyable minutes—though that’s still worth a recommendation in my book.