Over the past few decades, crime films and content often focus on the men who perpetrate violent acts. Walter White took the world by storm, while Henry Hill helped define gangster films for an entire generation. The Sopranoes and The Departed focused on people who were not fit for the mental toll a life in crime takes on your psyche. However, these stories rarely come from the point-of-view of women, specifically women of color. However, Hustlers makes a strong case for why we need more of these stories. Director Lorene Scafaria brings a tale of strippers who created a crime syndicate to life. Hustlers stands out thanks to its intimate and nuanced portraits of the ladies at the heart of the scandal. Thanks to larger than life performances, it should stand the test of time.
Hustlers follows Destiny (Constance Wu) as she begins to work at a new club to help support her grandmother financially. She meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who acts as a mother and mentor to the young dancer, and the two begin to earn money hand over fist. However, after the financial crash in 2008, their worlds are turned upside down. A few years later, the two reconnect and begin to use the club as the base for a new scheme. Rather than dance on stage, they target the rich clients that used to be their regulars, drug them using ketamine and MDMA, and charge their cards for all they’re worth.
Pulling from iconic crime films and using a traditional framing device, Scafaria pumps her own style and vision into the genre. While Goodfellas or The Town could be read as drab, Hustlers bustles to life with dozens of fun characters. The massive ensemble provides the film with recognizable faces at every turn, but relies on its core relationship to grip us emotionally. Destiny and Romana are smart, funny, and charismatic. You want them to succeed. Wu and Lopez have impeccable chemistry and their bond drives the film forward. The fact that they lead a group that consists of Mercedes Ruhl, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and financially supports Wai Ching Ho, you’ll likely find someone you want to root for.
Framing the women as Robin Hood and Little John certainly helps get the story across. After all, their “victims” are the richest of the rich, the very people who caused the economy to crater. The dialogue of class that runs throughout the film helps Scafaria bond you to her characters. However, she does not let her protagonists off the hook. Hustlers shows the devastation that some of these actions had on the lives of others. While these women began to rake in money, there are some genuinely good people who get caught in their wake. Utilizing Julia Stiles as an impartial point-of-view (think Rashida Jones in The Social Network) helps achieve this goal.
The real tour-de-force performance comes from Lopez. The pop singer dominates the screen with her big personality and even bigger coats. She’s electric as she brings energy to every scene, stealing them over and over again. Yet when people cross her, she tears them apart without remorse. To see the character love her family to no end, but ruthlessly destroy those who stand in her way, makes her one of the most compelling characters on film this decade. Donning a slight accent and dialect change, Lopez owns this movie from start to finish.
Wu keeps you hooked as well. Coming off Crazy Rich Asians, Wu certainly changes up your idea of what she’s capable of as a performer. This side of her comes off as more ambitious, even as she begins to question her role in the scheme. The story comes from her perspective, and Wu gives you just enough reason to think she’s misleading you, perhaps even filling in the gaps in a light favorable to Destiny. There’s a ruthlessness underneath her character, and even if you buy her actions as remorseful, the fact that there’s a question shows the strength of her performance.
Scafaria adds to her credit as a director thanks to the slick style with which she shoots the film. In a just world, Hustlers should be an across-the-board contender in the craft categories at the Oscars. Sound and lighting are integral to the success of the film. The cinematography from Todd Banhazl combines long takes, changing environments, color changes, and extreme closeups to expertly tell a visual story. The sound queues, including some killer needle drops for pop songs, helps get you into the mix quickly. Yet environments like strip clubs and the streets of New York can easily create a sensory overload, and we never feel overwhelmed. Even the costumes for the characters (who do spend the vast majority of the film full clothing), are complex. They tell us a lot about each of the women and costume designer Mitchell Travers helps build the characters through these visuals.
Hustlers feels like an instant classic that will only grow with time. Like Boogie Nights or Magic Mike XXL, there are some who will stay away from the story because of the subject matter alone. That’s sad, because they’ll miss out on one of the best films of the year, and one of the most entertaining times at the cinema you’ll ever have.