There’s little room for subtlety in Neil Jordan’s Greta. The heavy-handed application of Javier’s Navarrete’s ponderously ominous score foreshadows dark twists and turns miles before they arrive. A contrived stalker thriller plot alternately hits the anticipated beats and contorts itself into almost cartoonish implausibility as the titular character morphs from a seemingly benign, lonely widow into deranged, omnipresent predator. And yet, the entire campy affair remains compelling throughout due to impeccable atmosphere and game performances from its two consummate leads.

When 20-something Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz), who’s trying to make it in New York City while dealing with the aftermath of her mother’s death, finds a forgotten handbag on the subway, her kind gesture to return it to its rightful owner seems to gain her an unexpected new friend. Forlorn but pleasant Greta (Isabelle Huppert) lives in a tucked-away home that’s both quaint and elegant, an unlikely back-alley oasis amid the chaotic din of the Big Apple. Regretful of her distant relationship with a daughter who lives abroad, she exudes a surrogate-mother vibe to Frances, which the young woman seems drawn to. As Frances discovers upon her increasingly frequent visits, Greta enjoys tea, reminiscing, playing the piano, dogs—and never you mind that thumping coming through the wall, dearie. Before long, the increasingly needy and invasive Greta gloms onto her newfound friend, much to the chagrin of Frances’ snarky, incredulous roommate Erica (Maika Monroe), who finds the whole thing off-putting if not downright suspicious.

Moretz embodies the sweetness and naivete of a young person new to New York until her burgeoning new friendship is undercut by a startling discovery that Greta keeps a cupboard full of identical handbags used to lure unsuspecting do-gooders to her charming home. Soon, Frances’ trusting, loyal nature—at one point she claims her mom used to liken her to chewing gum because she “tends to stick around”—gives way to mounting dread as Greta simply will not be ignored. Huppert, meanwhile, imbues Greta with a heady mix of genteel menace before unraveling into batshit craziness. Though Jordan’s film might not always intend the levity that this grim romp evokes, Huppert always seems in on the joke, an art-house maven gleefully indulging in a rare opportunity for B-movie excess. Few actresses could pull off absurdity of dancing awkwardly with a syringe in hand with such aplomb.

Despite an overly serious script, Jordan establishes a garish atmosphere that allows room for an offbeat sense of mirth, with some of the violence almost played for laughs. These tonal shifts keep the viewer off-balance and engaged, even when the plot careens into the formulaic. Moretz and Huppert commit to the artistic limitations of this straight genre piece and avoid shoehorning too much forced pathos into their characters. In a story framed in the effects of grief, loneliness and isolation, the actresses use these elements to fuel the surging mayhem rather than explore the deeper human condition. They carry the film without attempting to transcend it, which makes its many outlandish scenarios (Greta seems capable of teleportation or invisibility at times) more deliciously fabulist than difficult to swallow.

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