If you were looking for someone to play a woman able to shift from maternal to menacing without missing a beat, someone who knows how to sell weird and creepy, you'd have to look no further than Isabelle Huppert, the French actress who -- no matter what roles she plays -- refuses to yield all her secrets.
In a performance that builds toward over-the-top madness, Huppert dominates director Neil Jordan's Greta, a thriller with horror movie flourishes that increasingly sacrifices sense for emphatically expressed shocks.
Jordan (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy) knows how to engineer a movie's jolts, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's always able to get beyond them. Put another way, Greta becomes increasingly insubstantial and incredible as it unfolds.
The story hinges on a promising conceit. Chloe Grace Moretz's portrays Frances, a young New Yorker who discovers an abandoned purse on the subway. A recent college grad who works as a waitress, Frances insists on returning the purse despite the objections of the well-heeled roommate (Maika Monroe) with whom she shares a SoHo apartment.
Frances' mission takes her to Brooklyn where Huppert's Greta lives in an apartment that's tucked behind an archway that isolates it from the rest of the street.
Jordan has no interest in making a movie about a good Samaritan so it's only a matter of time until the apparently grateful Greta turns into a stalker -- and worse. Greta claims to be like gum; i.e., she sticks to things -- or more accurately to people.
Having recently lost her mother, Frances proves vulnerable to Frances' initial proffer of friendship, but Greta already has gone off the rails and her runaway personality soon threatens to crush Frances. As Greta's stalks Frances, a nuisance morphs into a nightmare.
At times, Jordan suggests the movie might make interesting use of its New York surroundings, but he's more committed to narrowing his focus to concentrate on the ways in which Greta terrifies an increasingly rattled Frances.
I'm guessing that Jordan was trying for a movie in which cruel developments offer twisted fun; i.e., entertainment through scares, outlandishness and at least one bloody gross-out.
But the absence of deeper mystery pushes everything onto Greta's slick surface, where it slides into territory that's not only farfetched, but implausible and, in a few instances, laughable.
Poor Stephen Rae: He's stuck in the role of a private investigator hired to search for Frances. You needn't have seen Hitchcock's Psycho (although who hasn't?) to know that Rae's screen time will be limited. His character's fate is as obvious as just about everything else in an overamped thriller that not even the always-intriguing Huppert can save.