There’s No One Driving the Car: ‘Hustlers’ as Neo-Noir

Hustlers 2019 Movie - Film Essay

The Dance

Adapted from the New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is heavily based on the true story of a group of former exotic dancers who took to ripping of stock brokers by seducing them, spiking their drinks and then running up their credit cards at the strip club where they used to work. Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona, the group’s kingpin, first enters the screen glittering in a barely-there outfit, cast against the pitch black of the club. The little that she’s wearing makes her seem more naked than if she wore nothing at all. Audiences must fill in the blanks — it’s the power of a glimpse, a taste, a tease.

One of the first images the term “film noir” conjures is the character with their face partially obscured by the shadows. By draping some of the image in darkness, noir’s pioneers found that they could draw attention all the more effectively to what they wanted viewers to see. The pale skin of a smooth leg slipping out of a red dress. The murderous intent on the face beneath a fedora’s brim. The pearl handle of a revolver, only half-concealed.

As Ramona dances in Hustlers, the neon lights that back the stage pierce the darkness and shatter into a million points across her body. Brightness cast against blackness.

From the moment Ramona first appears, Hustlers announces itself as a new addition to the neo-noir cannon — a film about bright lights in dark places.

The primary lesson of noir is that you can’t really see the world in the daylight. The surface layer has all been too prettified. Politicians makes speeches about virtue while peddling in vice. Corporations dictate the world order from beneath a market-tested veneer of responsibility and care. Strangers hide awful intentions behind polite smiles. After the fact, their neighbours talk about how nice and quiet they seemed.

You can’t see anything real in the daylight, you have to descend into the night and the nightclubs, the backrooms and the back alleys; into the subconscious, subliminal places where the primal stuff resides, the real driving forces — all the places where the dark is thick enough for the pretences to be dropped, for real desire to come out… for our real values to make themselves known.

Hustlers is about the women who worked in one of these places; the women who saw men spent the night tearing after quick highs and the day bulldozing the world’s financial infrastructure, all with the same reckless, self-centred intent. The women of Hustlers are classic noir heroes, trapped in a situation they didn’t create.

Like all great noir heroes, they swing their full weight into the fight they can’t win. Their triumphs are small; pinpricks in the vast black abyss, all the more beautiful for the darkness around them.

The Game

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“It’s all a striptease” Ramona tells Destiny (Constance Wu) her friend, protégé and business partner, “You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”

Each iteration of noir has emerged from the kind of large-scale crisis that shatters faith in the world’s power structures. The hard-boiled detective tales that were initially taken to the screen came largely from the Great Depression, when the bottom first fell out of America’s bold new future. The adaptations arrived in the 40s and 50s, as the Depression gave way to World War II, and the world tore itself apart for the second time in half a century. Soon after, the Cold War hung the spectre of nuclear annihilation above the world’s heads while they continued to go about their daily business, and neo-noir was born.

It’s not just the lives these events cost at the time, but the scars they left upon the public psyche. Each of these catastrophes ripped back the curtain and revealed that there was no wise man guiding the world’s progress — just frauds and conmen driven by base desires, using smoke and mirrors to lend a grandeur to their greed.

For Ramona and Destiny, it’s the 2008 financial crisis which tips them over the edge: another world event so traumatising that a sub-genre of cinema has been built to try and account for it. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street immersed itself in the mad hedonism of a booming financial sector built on something which is fundamentally “fugazi…fairy dust… not on the elemental chart… not fucking real.” Two years later, Adam McKay’s The Big Short took a clear-eyed, scalpel-clean approach to satirising the greed and ignorance of those who gleefully primed the bomb.

Years after their initial meeting, Hustlers’ Ramona and Destiny catch up in a diner and reckon with the havoc the crisis has wrought on their lives. Destiny describes a dream in which she is in the back seat of a car, moving forward with increasing speed. She thinks everything is fine until she looks towards the front seat and finds that “no one was driving the car.”

This was the realisation that rocked the world in 2008. No one was really in control. For decades, we were hurtling towards disaster with no one at the wheel. We didn’t realise it until the crash.

The 2008 crisis was always a neo-noir story waiting to be told, mostly because of how it ended. For all their cynicism, the movies of classic noir were shackled by the Production Code, which forced them to resolve their stories with virtue triumphing over vice. Unbound and free to tell its stories as it wanted to, neo-noir provided tales of unredeemed evil and unpunished crimes.

The dust from the 2008 crash cleared and no one went to jail. No one was held accountable, and nothing was done to ensure that it did not happen all over again. The lesson, broadcast out to all the world, was unignorably clear.

“The game is rigged and it does not reward people who play by the rules” says Ramona in Hustlers.

The Danger

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Ramona, Destiny and their group understand the game. In the years before the crash, they make a good living dancing for Wall Street boys eager to spend other people’s money to make themselves feel important. In Ramona’s introductory routine, she offers them a domineering glamour queen, snapping them to attention with the thunderclap of her heels. She offers them a wild animal, thrashing on all fours across the floor. She reaches into their sub-conscious, draws out their desires and makes them real.

Ramona projects absolute confidence and control as she plays each customer. Lopez is no stranger to playing the femme fatale, matching the macho confidence of the men around her with a sultry stare and a knife-edged line in several of her past roles. Ramona carries that energy and makes her living by playing cat and mouse with her clients, working them into a state of near-frenzy but making sure they never cross the line.

The truth which the femme fatale tries to mask with sensuality and wit is that they are living balanced on the knifepoint of male ego. Ramona and her friends know that to make any real money, they will often have to indulge a kind of sexuality that is torn between desire and contempt: that volatile kind of male lust that hates what it craves and hates itself for craving it. It’s the kind of sexuality that can only be played out in circumstance of absolute power, that requires absolute debasement and submission from its targets to preserve its own sense of strength. In the case of their clients, it’s twinned with a sense of entitlement that always considers seizing possession to be a valid option.

Even as they create fantasy after fantasy to keep their clients content, Ramona and Destiny know that the slightest misstep — the wrong kind of smile, the slightest amount too much or too little reserve — might touch the fine hair trigger buried in his psyche and unleash a nightmare upon them. As they undress before clients clad in Armani suits and Rolex watches, the power balance couldn’t be more clear. The customers are protected by an impregnable layer of wealth, while the dancers are completely bare.

Later on in Hustlers, even as Ramona’s gang accrue enough money for penthouses and chinchilla coats, they never approach this kind of “wealth” — the kind that is more than a bank balance figure; the kind that is tied to whiteness and maleness, to an idea of respectability and legitimacy. The kind that makes you invincible.

The Point

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One of the most telling, and most tragic, moments in Hustlers comes when Destiny returns to dancing after several years away. In the intervening time, the financial crisis has decimated the club. The remaining dancers are mostly those willing to cross into sex work to eke out a living.

During a private dance, a customer presses Destiny to do the same. “Three hundred dollars” he promises, arrogantly slapping three bills down beside him. Raising a daughter by herself, barely getting by, Destiny’s eyes empty. She silently, sadly calculates how much of herself she can bear to give away, like a person looking over their most prized possession to figure out what to pawn. It is only afterwards that Destiny realises he had given her three twenties.

What’s so important about this scene is the fact that the customer screws Destiny over just because he can. Circumstance has already given him everything. He gets to take what he wants at a price already hammered down by desperation. But he still has to turn the knife. He has to make it sting that little bit more, to make it just a little more degrading. Because that’s the real thrill: the cruelty, as they say, is the point.

The 2008 crisis was created by people playing with other people’s money. At the diner, Ramona furiously explains to Destiny that they drained the firefighters’ pensions and played roulette with working people’s savings. They were all rich already, but they wanted more. They created the world’s greatest scam and built a billion dollar industry in which no goods or services were provided, just imaginary numbers rolling across a screen. But no matter how much their make-believe made them, it was never enough.

“How much better can you eat?” Jack Nicholson’s PI Jake Gittes asks in 1974’s seminal neo-noir Chinatown. “What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”

The crash was created by greed on a psychotic scale, backed up by an absolute disregard for human life. It was not a strategic blunder, a miscalculation or an unpredictable market shift. It was pure economic violence. It was cruelty. It was throwing down three twenties when you agreed to pay three hundred, just because you can.

The Crew

Hustlers Movie Film

Hustlers doesn’t paint its cast as heroes, villains or anti-heroes, bur rather just as average people doing what they can to claim a morsel of the world for themselves. In a broken system, all they have to leverage is their wits, their bodies and their sexuality. They become criminals after the market value of their skills is razed to the ground by the very people who used to shower them in bills.

“Fuck those guys” Ramona says, eyes ablaze with indignant fury, as she finishes explaining to Destiny how their world came to be in the state she found it.

They hatch a plan to spike the drinks of certain high-rolling clients and run their credit cards for all they’re worth. They can’t fix the world or alter the broken system by which it’s run but maybe they can hack the code a little. Maybe they can send a little more money trickling down from the top; so little that no one up top will ever know it’s gone, let alone miss it — so much that they could live out their dreams.

Their dreams, like most people’s, aren’t really all that big. “I don’t want to be dependent on anybody” Destiny tells Ramona early in Hustlers, “I just want to take care of my grandma, maybe go shopping every once in a while.”

A scene in which the focal crew celebrates Christmas together makes the humble scale of their ambitions touchingly clear: they just want to hang out together somewhere comfortable, have a nice meal, buy the kids a few toys. When they go really wild, it’s a chinchilla coat, not a yacht or a tech start-up. It’s one of Hustlers’ sweetest moments. The apartment is brightly lit with soft, airy light bouncing gently off the white of the furniture and the vivid colours of the decorations. Just for a moment, the dark is driven out.

There have always been loud voices in our culture dedicated to painting the underclasses as workshy and financially reckless: pissing away their cash on infantile indulgences, buying iPhones and soy lattes instead of paying rent. As degrading women often involves this same sort of over-emotional, childlike characterisation, these prejudices are superserved against them. The truth is that these luxuries are minuscule in the face of the money being burned by those in power. The truth is that most people are only asking for what Destiny wants: a tiny slither of the world in which to live without being crushed in by debt and degradation.

The Trap

Hustlers Movie Film

By the rules of traditional noir, the hero finds themselves in dire circumstance through no fault of their own, and then can’t help but exacerbate them. The more they press back against the system that has ensnared them, the tighter it binds itself across their throats.

Before long, it all comes crashing down for Ramona and Destiny in Hustlers, because it always had to. The great irony is that, in spite of her keen awareness of and total contempt for the system that ruined their lives, Ramona’s fatal flaw is abiding by its logic. Even as the business is going well and all their needs are being met, she can’t resist the urge to expand their operation. In the pursuit of never-ending growth, she takes on more and more risk. Ultimately, she goes too far, and the whole thing collapses.

It would be a mistake to see the symmetry between Ramona’s downfall and the 2008 crash as portraying them as equally guilty. She isn’t driven by some imperial need to conquer everything or an egotistical sense of her own importance. Ramona isn’t gambling wildly because it’s someone else’s money, she takes on all the risk herself. She keeps grasping after more and more because she knows what it’s like to not have enough to get by. The taste of desperation lingers, the fear of ever finding yourself at the bottom again means you’ll risk everything to stay on top.

When Ramona is finally arrested, she’s wearing a hoody with a glittering crown emblazoned on the back. Diamonds in the dark, just like at the beginning.

Standing at an ATM, Ramona turns to find three police cars screeching to a halt before her. She clutches two fistfuls of cash as the police order her to put her hands up. Guns drawn, they tell her repeatedly to let go of the money. Finally, she does, and it’s swept off by the wind. Lorde’s “Royals” plays over the scene.

And we’ll never be royals. It don’t run in our blood. That kind of lux just ain’t for us.

That’s the vital fact, the thing that meant that they could never win, and those on top could never lose. No matter how many scores they pull off or how big a pile of cash they build, it can all be swept away by the slightest breeze. All the while, the buildings of Wall Street stand: immune to the ravages all around them, unaffected by the chaos emanating outwards.

You are either the one doing the dance or the one throwing the money. And you probably always will be.

The Plan

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What do you do when you realise the game is rigged?

That’s one of the big questions asked by film noir. Do you give up? Do you submit, keep doing the dance and hope that those in power keep enough of their run-off trickling down towards you?

Or do you try something radical?

“The house always wins” preaches Danny Ocean in Ocean’s Eleven, as he tries to get the rest of his crew on board. “Play long enough, you never change the stakes, the house takes you. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big. Then you take the house.”

Ramona’s pitch is roughly the same in Hustlers. She and her friends made an honest living while the world allowed it, only to see it shot to pieces by those in charge. So now they can either break the rules or spend the rest of their lives on their knees.

Of course, the reason there is an Ocean’s Twelve is that even betting big on a great hand doesn’t change the game. You can’t win against the people who own the world.

At heart, Ramona’s scheme is a one-finger salute to the world order, a Bonnie and Clyde ride that’s beautiful while it lasts and doomed to end in flames. Its fatalism makes it beautiful, sublime. The rose tint of a pair of lips or the fire dancing at a cigarette’s end never look more enchanting than when they’re surrounded by shadows.

Ramona’s dance at the beginning of Hustlers is a celebration of herself: her sexuality, her body, her charisma and charm. She can’t wrestle the world out of the hands of those who sit around the stage, but — for a moment — she can demand their attention. She can drive them wild and make them salivate, command their eyes and control their minds.

Soon the sun will rise, and the hustlers will return to their roles as Masters of the Universe, and Ramona will go back to just getting by. But, in this nocturnal space, while darkness hangs in the air, she can shine.

Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.