The Grifters opens with Roy Dillon in action—and erring in ways that will change his life forever. He tries to con a drug store clerk into both giving him change for a twenty-dollar bill and the bill itself back. The clerk gets angry and smashes Roy in the stomach with a baseball bat. Roy manages to make it back to his room at the hotel where he lives. Once home, he talks on the phone with his lover, Moira Langtry, who comes over. After they make love, Moira starts a conversation about their future, and this starts Roy thinking about how they had met. He proposes that they leave Los Angeles for the weekend and go to La Jolla, a seaside community in San Diego, California. Moira agrees.
Roy feels sick to his stomach after Moira leaves, but he is not alone long before his mother, Lilly Dillon, arrives. Roy has not seen his mother for seven years, but she does not seem to have aged. Lilly explains that she is in Los Angeles on business. As they are talking, Roy’s stomach pain gets worse, and Lilly steps in to help him, calling an ambulance and issuing orders. While Roy is in the hospital, Lilly hires nurses to care for him once he is home.
Roy is attracted to one of the nurses, Carol Roberg, and begins a relationship with her. While Roy is recovering, Lilly spends time at the racetrack, running an extended con to launder dirty money using losing tickets. When she goes out to her car, she finds her boss, Bobo Justus, waiting for her. He has realized that she is running her own cons, which may jeopardize the cons that she is doing for him. Bobo has Lilly drive him to her apartment, where he burns her hand with a cigarette and beats her so extensively that she urinates on herself.
Meanwhile, Moira continues her grifter path through life, drinking and thinking contemptuously about those around her, remembering her past, and then sleeping with her apartment manager to pay her rent. Afterward, she tries to sell her jewelry but finds that it is all fake. She offers herself sexually to the jeweler, but he refuses.
As Carol has been taking care of Roy, they have become more and more attracted to one another. They eventually sleep together, but Roy is disgusted when he learns that she was in a concentration camp, where she was sterilized and sexually abused. He tries to cover up his thoughts and recover from his reaction, but she sees it and leaves him.
Not wanting to be in debt to his mother, Roy paid her back immediately for the nursing care, but he now goes to her to talk about Carol. They argue about how Lilly raised him, and both try to...