You would have to go back a few decades — maybe to Glenn Close in 1987’s “Fatal Attraction” — to find a grande dame actress completely committing to a psychotic character like Isabelle Huppert does in the horror-thriller “Greta.”
It’s a shame, then, to find that director Neil Jordan, a long way removed from “The Crying Game,” ultimately lets down Huppert and the audience with a brainless story.
The story starts with recent New York transplant Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) riding the subway one day, and seeing an abandoned purse on a seat. Being a kind person — i.e., someone not from New York, the story strongly hints — she takes the bag home and finds a woman’s ID card inside. Against the advice of her roommate, Erica Penn (Maika Monroe), Frances goes to the address on the ID to return the bag to Greta Hideg, Huppert’s character.
At first, Greta seems to be a nice lady, a former pianist in a cottage-like house tucked away in a courtyard away from New York’s traffic and noise. Greta offers Frances some tea, and later Frances even accompanies Greta to the animal shelter to find a rescue dog to help Greta fend off her loneliness. But Erica warns Frances not to turn Greta into a surrogate for her recently deceased mom.
After a short bit, there’s a twist revelation that prompts Frances to end the relationship with Greta. However, Greta refuses to be dismissed so easily. It’s in these middle passages, when neither Frances nor the audience is sure what Greta’s game is, that Huppert shines, riding that fine line between wounded soul and creepy stalker.
Alas, Jordan, polishing a script by Ray Wright (“Case 39,” “The Crazies”), can’t stay in the either-or zone for long — and when the movie does tip over the side, things take a turn for the ludicrous. The twists get increasingly ridiculous, and only work because Moretz’s character has been written to be an idiot and a doormat. (Jordan regular Stephen Rea, playing a private detective, doesn’t fare too well in the brains department, either.) Then there’s the silly and somewhat sadistic ending, which relies on a twist Jordan telegraphs well ahead of the big reveal.
Through it all, though, Huppert is having a grand old time, as Greta’s maternal charm curdles into something darker and more disturbing. If only “Greta” was willing to be as boldly insane as its title character.
Opens Friday, March 1, in theaters everywhere. Rated R for some violence and disturbing images. Running time: 98 minutes.