Editor’s Note: Mother’s Day is fast approaching, so in honor of all things maternal, we’ll be taking a look back this week at some of the most uniquely mom-centric movies in the Miramax library. Not all of the matriarchs featured in this series would qualify for a parenting award. Some may even qualify for a felony or two. But they all pay homage to motherhood in their own indelible ways. In our spotlight today is Lilly Dillon — Anjelica Huston’s starring role in Stephen Frears’ The Grifters.
Lilly Dillon isn’t your average mom. She skirts the law, cons her adversaries, and has a violent streak that occasionally bubbles up from beneath her glamorous exterior. Hers is a life lived on the fringes, and one that her son, Roy, inherits almost by default. Lilly makes clear from the very beginning that she’s not comfortable with Roy’s decision to become a con-man, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s not nearly as skilled or as deft as his mother, nor does he have the hard-nosed toughness needed to survive in a world controlled by mob bosses and gangsters.
But Roy’s involvement in the Los Angeles underworld has even more complex implications for his relationship with Lilly. Even before the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that their rapport isn’t exactly normal. He addresses her by her first name throughout the film, and her shows of affection, while not overtly sexual, sometimes border on the incestuous. Confusing matters even further is the fact that the platinum blonde Lilly, played by Anjelica Huston, bares a creepily striking resemblance to Myra Langtry (Annette Bening) — Roy’s cutthroat girlfriend.
There’s an Oedipal dynamic at work here, to be sure, but it’s not an entirely conventional one. In the absence of a father figure, Lilly seems to assume both paternal and maternal roles in what quickly becomes a Sohpoclean tragedy. She’s simultaneously a lover and an adversary — the doting female and the territorial male. She clearly has a lot of affection for her child, but, like a father handing over the family business to his son, she also wants to reassert her dominion over him.
Ultimately, these opposing forces tear her apart, destroying her son in the process, and leaving the audience in a haze of question marks.