Movie Review: ‘American Hustle’ (2013)
“Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad but you had to survive?”
Sometimes, you see a film that captures your attention because you realize you have just seen something significant. Pulp Fiction from Quentin Tarantino, Goodfellas from Martin Scorsese, There Will Be Blood from Paul Thomas Anderson. These films come across as both a milestone that everything else these directors do will be compared to (whether that is fair or not) but also as a film that could be considered “an American classic,” as pretentious as that may sound. American Hustle hit the same nerve for me that these films did.
American Hustle, very loosely based on the real-life ABSCAM scandal, tells the story of two con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) who get caught by an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and must work with him to set up and entrap a well-meaning politician (Jeremy Renner) while avoiding getting their cover blown by various obstacles, including Bale’s anxiety-filled wife (Jennifer Lawrence). What makes the film brilliant is how it takes a story that is filled with twists, turns, tension and chooses to focus on the characters and their interactions in relation to what is going on.
Director and co-writer David O. Russell has always had an affinity towards weird and interesting characters and not by making fun of them, but by celebrating them. Russell chooses to revel in his characters and their nuances, and this in turn frees up the writing and the acting. The dialogue is sharp, the film explodes with energy and the performances all-around are noteworthy, especially Bale and Lawrence. The relationship that is created between their two characters is so wonderfully entertaining and humorous and both Lawrence and Bale really seem to have fun and enjoy every second they spend playing their respective characters. The film also deftly balances its tension with humor and energy, where most films would fall on their faces. Russell instead lets his actors act, trusts the audiences to follow along, and somehow amazingly never loses the balance he has created with all the plates he has spinning.
I have also never been a viewer of Russell’s films where I was impressed by his direction. I’ve liked almost everything he has done and I’ve always seen him as a great “actor’s director” but that’s about it. This however is the first film where I felt confidence behind the camera with him, every shot feels assured, every scene is staged wonderfully. This is definitely the first movie from David O’Russell where I can stand back and admire how he directed the film instead of simply admiring the film for its acting and how the story affected me. This is the first film from him that feels like the complete package, with everything clicking.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the film however is the theme of survival, with every character having one goal: survive. The characters do what they must, just to make it to the next day. This theme is both thematic and infinitely easy to relate to because it is something we all do. Everyone is just trying to make it in this world, everyone is just trying to make a dollar, just trying to survive. Despite the fact these characters talk faster and wittier than most of us do and are participating in devious activities that we don’t, it doesn’t make the theme any less easy to connect with. What adds to this theme as well is, as the title suggests, the fact this story takes place in America. This is never a detail that is put on display necessarily, but as the film goes on you get this sense that this feels like “an American story”, perhaps something that could truly only happen in America, for better or worse reasons. It is just another layer added on top of everything else this film delicately balances.
American Hustle is a film that simply crackles. It fires on all cylinders and tells it’s story with such balance that it cannot be called anything else but a monumental achievement. This is David O. Russell’s Pulp Fiction, his Goodfellas, his Fargo or There Will Be Blood. It will be the film anything else he does will be compared to, and for good reason. Bale, Lawrence, Adams and everyone else delivers in spades with their performances and the film cuts with a sharp edge. The film is exhilarating, energetic and a pure joy to watch.