The 2008 financial crisis is certainly a watershed moment in not only American history but one that fundamentally shifted the psyche of the global stage as we know it. Once multiple economies crashed, leaving swaths of people with sobering and uncertain financial futures, it’s no surprise that film and culture would respond accordingly and shift deeper into the escapist fantasy that had begun to dominate the box office in the earlier part of the ’00s, i.e. superhero films, remakes and adaptations of beloved franchises of movie-goers’ youths, and giant worlds built with black-and-white morality in mind. However, there was of course something else emerging from the scars the recession left behind. As the dust settled on the crisis, banks were bailed out and the economy began to find an equilibrium, filmmakers began tapping into the zeitgeist and psyche of an America that had just been scammed out of a stable future and the fascinating purveyor and products of such a colossal scam.
Beginning in 2013 alone we had The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain and The Wolf of Wall Street, all films about the new “American Dream” (or perhaps it’s the old one with a more honest bent to it): get rich quick, live large, and disregard those you hurt. These films present their protagonists as either ruthless (The Wolf of Wall Street), vapid (Pain and Gain, The Bling Ring) or blissfully hollow (Spring Breakers) and while there are moments you wouldn’t be blamed for sympathizing with these people, the filmmakers never showcase them as heroes. They’re figureheads for America’s ugly id and worst impulses at a time when the entire world had finally woken up to the harsh reality that there were people who would actively, and without foresight, pillage from people with no remorse. It’s why Adam McKay’s The Big Short is such a fascinating look at the 2008 financial crisis. It digs into just how many levels this type of financial vampirism affects people.
Lorene Scafaria’s third feature-length film Hustlers is a movie that’s interested in looking into how people who are ruined by institutions and the cruelty of others can become exactly the same thing if not given a moral or emotional anchor. The film, which is based off the 2015 New York magazine exposé “The Hustlers at Scores,” centers around a group of sex workers turned criminals who hustled Wall Street workers out of thousands of dollars in the years following the financial crisis. Constance Wu plays Dorothy (occasionally going by her stage name Destiny), a woman struggling to make ends meet as she takes care of an ailing grandmother. She also struggles to make a splash at the strip club she just started at — that is, until she locks her gaze on enrapturing Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez). Dorothy, who suffers from loneliness and abandonment issues, not only wants to have Ramona take her under her wing and show her how to make a decent living but also have her be a close friend and confidant.
Things are good for a while (Dorothy even remarks just how good 2007 was), but the walls all come crashing down once 2008 rolls around. The duo is scattered to the wind, but a few years later they’re reunited at the very club that brought them together. While Dorothy has fallen on hard times, Ramona has been hard at work reeling in clients to the once prosperous club. It’s here that the two decide that there’s even more money to be made preying on the very same men who preyed on them and the American public at large.
Hustlers settles into a propulsive and rhythmic groove of these women becoming not unlike the men they’re taking advantage of. It’s a process-oriented film similar to Martin Scorsese’s crime films (it’s no secret that early on he was approached to direct this film), with the rise and fall of a money-making empire all keyed into a specific time and place. Yet, Scafaria isn’t interested in just being a Goodfellas/Casino/The Wolf of Wall Street pastiche. Once you look past the framing device, voiceover and needle drops (which unlike lesser Scorsese riffs, none are lazily dropped about midway through movie), here lies something much more soulful. Unlike the films I mentioned earlier you are supposed to sympathize with these women for the entire duration and, because of how widespread the financial crisis truly was, eventually empathize with them.
None of these women are presented as members of the “Bling Ring,” Daniel Lugo or Jordan Belfort (although amusingly enough Roselyn Keo, the real-life Dorothy, wanted to follow Belfort’s footsteps and pursue motivational speaking as a post-crime career). They’re heavily flawed, yes, but never are they psychopaths. Ramona is shown to fabricate the truth and Dorothy loses sight of why she started hustling these men in the first place but the film constantly brings you back around to the idea that all of these women care for each other and at least attempt to not cross any lines. The film portrays the women from the New York article as a bit gentler and more likable than their real-life counterparts but still wrestles with their humanity. The most interesting stretch of the film is when they cross paths with a Wall Street employee who’s on hard times himself. Scafaria is shifting focus here. These aren’t just misogynist leeches in big business — they are people, too. The women overlook that and become leeches themselves.
But Scafaria and the film always come back to commiseration. Hustlers quietly builds and builds to the final moments of a crime film not with blood and bullets, but with quiet betrayal. The catharsis within the film lies with how Ramona and Dorothy feel about each other and ultimately see each other once the dust settles. Because for all the signifiers and talk in the film about feeding off of the people below you and America as a rigged institution, the film never forgets how much can be accomplished and gained emotionally (and monetarily) if you take care and have the back of those around you.
This review of Hustlers was done in conjunction with the IU Cinema’s series Running the Screen: Directed By Women series, a month-long celebration of films exploring nothing but the wide variety of films directed by women.
Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is currently in theaters.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.