A small-time conman has torn loyalties between his estranged mother and new girlfriend–both of whom are high-stakes grifters with their own angles to play.
Release Year: 1990
Rating: 7.0/10 (13,266 voted)
Critic's Score: 86/100
Stars: Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening
Lily works for a bookie, placing bets to change the odds at the track. When her son is hospitalized after an unsuccessful con job and resultant beating, she finds that even an absentee parent has feelings for her child. This causes her own job to go wrong as well. Each of them faces the down side of the grift.
Writers: Jim Thompson, Donald E. Westlake
Guy at Bar
Nurse Carol Flynn
Seduction. Betrayal. Murder. Who's Conning Who?
Release Date: 4 January 1991
Filming Locations: Arizona, USA
Opening Weekend: $125,195
(21 January 1991)
Did You Know?
The stock con Myra describes to Roy when they first meet is a variation on the "Wire" con used in
In the train, when Roy is grifting the sailors, you can see that he is only rolling one die at a time. However, you can distinctly hear him drop two dice (out of the frame) to the table at the end of the game.
Around the country the bookies pay off winners at track odds. It's dangerous when a long shot comes in. Unless you have somebody at the tracks to lower those odds.
Wanting to test out my testosterone in boot camp I decided to try out
for the boxing team and went to the gym with a friend. Neither of us
knew anything about boxing. The coach put us both in the ring and said,
"Okay, let's see what you can do," or something equally Hemingwayesque.
On the first half-hearted swing, Andy dealt me a glancing blow on the
upper abdomen with a glove the size and density of a throw pillow. I
went down on my knees and grabbed the ropes, thinking I might die from
the pain. It had never occurred to me, watching the odd bout on TV,
that every time one of those guys got punched — it hurt! End of boxing
career. This is the kind of movie in which, when somebody gets punched
in the belly, he goes down and stays down. For several days.
It's a movie for grown ups about grifters — con people — who work all
sorts of games on one another. It's not "The Sting," which is funny and
which is about "the big con," as it's evidently still called, requiring
eons of preparation. This film is about people who cheat, artists in
their own ways, but not theatrical producers.
John Cusack is handsome in a pale way and delivers a decent performance
as a young man who plays "short cons", clipping people out of nickels,
dimes, and dollars, although he's been doing it long enough to put away
something of a stash.
Annette Bening, his girl friend, is much more into the life, with quite
a history. She's very pretty too. She has a gracile figure and minces
when she walks. In addition to the sleek clothes she occasionally has
on in this film, she wears a big open-lipped smile, speaks in a
breathless Marilyn Monroe whisper, and has eyes that sparkle with
mischief and deceit. There is murder behind that grin.
Angelica Huston is a puzzle. She's excellent here as a woman who works
for Bobo, Pat Hinkle, a pudgy sadist, his best role in a generation.
But her appearance is disturbing. It's as if, during childhood, her
skeleton couldn't quite make up its mind about how mannish to become,
how broad the shoulders should be, how high and boney the pelvic
girdle. I don't mean that she is in any way unfeminine because she's
not. It's simply that, knowing what her Dad looks like, I see the
resemblance as so marked that it's kind of embarrassing to find her
J. T. Walsh is perfect as the big con artist with that boyishly naive
candor that sucks the marks in because it is nothing more than a
He has a sympathetic, believable face, though he was stand-offish in
person, and it's a shame that he died at such a relatively early age
because he's always been a pleasure to watch.
The story has some very dark undertones. It isn't just that Bening is
trying to rope Cusak into the grifter's way of life, or that Huston and
her son Cusak have been estranged for eight years, or that Huston is
skimming off the top while working for Bobo the Dangerous, or that
Cusak is trying to minimize his cons. These themes are interesting
enough in themselves and would add up to something resembling "House of
Games." But it's a lot more Freudian than that. Of all the forms of
incest in the nuclear family, mother-son incest is the rarest. And when
it happens, or even when the impulse manifests itself, it's a shocker.
Huston and Bening, on first meeting, take an immediate dislike to one
another and trade open insults. Bening: "I'm Roy's friend." Huston: "I
imagine you're a lot of peoples' friend." Bening: "Oh — NOW I see.
Yes, in the light you look easily old enough to be Roy's mother." The
hatred is based on a jealousy that only Bening is able to discern. Some
outstanding script writing has gone on here.
The lighting and photography are at least up to par, whether out of
doors in the sunshine of a race track or indoors, in the dismal dump
Roy lives in, the salmon-colored murk of his walls, lamps, and
furniture and the clown portraits on black velvet. The score is based
on an ironic tinkling oompah tune," although it turns emphatically
dramatic when the situation calls for it, and it neatly sidesteps the
conventions of the genre.
Watch this if you have the chance. You'll think about it for some time
afterward, the way I thought about that blow in the ring.