|Rating: The Good – 87.8
Genre: Crime, Gangster
Duration: 138 mins
Director: David O. Russell
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro
As much as great scripts inspire great performances so do great directors. That we have seen fewer and fewer Stanley Kowalskis, Michael Corleones, and Jake LaMottas in the last 30 years is a testament not necessarily to the lack of great actors but perhaps the lack of great writers and directors or at least the lack of all three elements at the same time. Well fret no longer because 2013’s American Hustle represents as explosive an intersection between all three elements as we’ve witnessed probably since Goodfellas. “Seminal”, “sublime”, “iconic”, “defining” are just some of the superlatives that might swirl through your head while watching David O. Russell’s latest claim to directorial greatness. A near perfect immersion in the era and (partly fictitious) personalities of one of American history’s most infamous sting operations, the ABSCAM operation.
Christian Bale stars as the best conman in America, Irving Rosenfeld, who moves from one small time scam to another always staying off the radar. Amy Adams is the love of his life and partner in con artistry who eventually gets them in trouble when an eccentric FBI agent in the form of Bradley Cooper arrests her and forces the two experts to help him bring down a bunch of corrupt politicians and even the casino backing mobsters. What could go wrong? Well nothing – apart from Irving’s bipolar wife (a hysterical Jennifer Lawrence), a nice guy mayor (a brilliant Jeremy Renner) whom Irving is forced to double cross, and an infamous mobster who takes a dislike to Irving from the start (Robert De Niro in classic form).
The first thing to strike you about this film is its authenticity. Linus Sandgram’s cinematography, Judy Becker’s production design, and Michael Wilkinson’s costume design help largely in setting the era under the auspices of Russell’s urbane vision. Along with the (thankfully) less obvious and excellent source music, Russell channels his sterling cast’s performances through this visual aesthetic and wraps the whole thing up in several quietly impressive innovations in camera angles, editing, and overall narrative construction. The performances are universally meritorious with the five leads rating as exquisite but in different ways to each other. Cooper and Lawrence are wired to the moon with the former doing particularly well in bedding his character’s temperament in a believable personality. It’s a gleefully incendiary turn with a fair dose of humanity to make you feel for him. Lawrence’s character is more extreme in her mania and wasn’t required to play it as close to the ground as Cooper did. She has less screen time than Bale, Cooper, and Adams too but her few scenes are a riot of alcohol-fuelled insecurity-bridging mayhem.
Bale, Adams, and Renner have most of the straight acting to do. Adams is genuinely terrific in imbuing her character with a difficult conflict while Renner shows a charming level of humanity in his clever turn. Bale, on the other hand, does nothing short of deliver the best performance in a gangster movie since De Niro’s Jimmy Conway. From his barely noticeable hunch, his biting attitude, his touching concerns, to the intonations in his Bronx accent, he is simply sublime. The plot hinges on his quality and while Russell arguably spreads the story too thin by spending too little time on him, Bale ties it all together with his understated acting manoeuvres. The only other thing as exciting as watching him work is De Niro’s single scene in which he tantalises us with a powerfully intimidating piece of work that recalls the menace of his very best gangster roles.
At the feet of these acting masterclasses is Russell and Eric Warren Singer’s pitch, tone, and cadence perfect script which from very early on binds us to the principals. Picking up where Pileggi and Scorsese left off, it streams the narrative around not two but three cast narrations. The intimately autobiographical tone of Henry and Karen Hill is very much present but even more tapped in that regard as conversational like pauses become emotional lacunae in which Russell paints a far more intricate picture of personhood. It’s an immensely effective narrative adaptation and it sets the bar for the remainder of the film’s direction.
Intricacy is the key here as themes of friendship, rivalry, passion, fear, and above all, duplicity are brought together in unprecedented manner. It’s dramatic, it’s tense, it’s gripping, and thanks to that searing script, there are some impeccable moments of black humour littered throughout. There’s not much action compared to other gangster classics and both the heartbreak and payoff is more emotional and cerebral than we are used to seeing but the manner in which Russell weaves his tapestry is at times spellbinding. Yes, the story is large in scope and it feels like Bale’s Irving should’ve featured even more centrally than he did and yes, his seems like a persona we are not used to rooting for but, at all times, Russell looks to have an ace up his sleeve. Whether you believe he played it too late or not might be disputed but his timing undisputedly has one hell of an effect. And isn’t that what storytelling is all about?
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