It’s the score that finally gives it away, after an airless first 15 minutes in which it seems like perhaps Neil Jordan — “Crying Game” and “Michael Collins” and “Butcher Boy” Neil Jordan! — has finally lost it and taken Isabelle Huppert and Chloe Grace Moretz along for the ride. It opens as a stilted, awkward drama, complete with the always-delightful Maika Monroe giving literal voice to what appears to be the film’s obvious theme (mommy issues, basically) — and then it takes a surprising flip.
Give thanks to the overwrought instrumental cue from composer Javier Navarrete: This is meant to be campy, a B-movie in disguise. The tension-filled strings cut in first, horror-movie music that wouldn’t be out of place in a “Conjuring” film, and then we see what they’re meant to highlight: Huppert, blithely flipping through Facebook to mine information about her latest prey. It’s a daring little twist, but after its seemingly straightforward first few minutes, that single scene pushes Jordan’s “Greta” somewhere new, and it only gets weirder and wilder from there.
The first big misstep of TIFF 2018: This campy B-movie curiosity should have been programmed in the Midnight Madness, instead hiding in the Special Presentations section where it’s billed as a “nerve-rattling thriller.” It’s that, sure, but it’s also hearty fun, a “bad” movie that’s made suddenly good by the involvement of a game audience and Jordan allowing Huppert to go certifiably batshit on a doe-eyed Moretz.
It’s easy to see why Jordan’s film, based on a story and screenplay by Ray Wright, zips through its opening act with such abandon, because there’s fun stuff to get to once the pieces are lined up. When waitress Frances (Moretz) finds a chic bag on the subway, she does the right thing: looks for identifying information of its owner, takes it home, keeps it safe. Her best friend and roommate Erica (Monroe, the secret MVP of a movie in which Huppert is the obvious draw) wants to rob it for cash to use for colonics or facials or something else they can presumably Instagram. Frances, sweet, dumb Frances, remains firm: that’s not what they do where she comes from. (Boston, if you’re wondering.)
The next morning, Frances trundles off to Brooklyn to deliver it to its owner, the eponymous Greta (Huppert), a honey-voiced ex-pat who lives in a charming little carriage house alluringly placed behind an anonymous apartment building. The pair bond immediately, Jordan having already let us in to Frances’ main psychological marker (her mom died a year ago, it’s not okay) and swiftly presenting Greta as a possible surrogate. Erica is mystified by the bond, and more than a little freaked out, but Frances revels in the new attention, and she and Greta zip through their early days, making each other dinner, adopting a dog for the lonely Greta, and intertwining their lives in ways that seem beneficial to both.
Huppert’s tension-laced foray onto Frances’ Facebook page is menacing before the strings kick in, because she’s presented herself as a technological neophyte, and her online trawling speaks to someone with significantly more experience. And then Frances finds something in a cabinet (a wacky reveal too good to spoil) that makes it clear that Greta’s “lost” bag may have been wholly intentional.
As Frances tries to pull away, Greta goes nutty, and Jordan and Huppert stage a batshit stalker film for the ages, a modern tale of obsession that finds its footing in scenes as silly as Greta taking menacing photos (well framed, though!), standing outside Frances’ workplace for hours on end, and eventually flipping a table in a crowded restaurant. Bolstered by Navarrete’s over-the-top score, each scene moves from scary to hilarious in the minimum of time, and that’s well before it really gets to its most bonkers twists.
By the time Greta is all but pirouetting around a dead body and Wright and Jordan’s script tosses in a tiny detail about her being a disgraced nurse with a love of narcotics, “Greta” has gone so fully off the rails that such narrative elements don’t even matter. The joy is just Huppert, desperate and scary and so, so funny, and Jordan making good on early hints about nefarious piano lessons and something called “the box.”
Light on her feet, flying over a body recently dispatched in a tossed-off plot point and Greta’s increasingly addled brain, another film would go for the darker shades, but Jordan opts to turn the cliche and overwrought into unexpected B-movie joy. Greta all but winks at the camera, and “Greta” is very much in on the joke.
“Greta” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.