Note: Beware of spoilers for recent movies that include Hustlers, The Kitchen and Widows.
Sometimes there’s no other choice, and a good man must break bad. Michael Corleone resists his father’s criminal empire, but when it comes down to it, he kills for his family without hesitation or regret—the same way his own father did for him. Dying of cancer, Walter White can follow the rules and bequeath his family a mountain of debt, or he can become a ruthless drug lord. It’s almost always men at the center of these stories, reinforcing a kind of idea that expressing love is totally okay just as long as it involves having your underworld rivals killed.
The Godfather and Breaking Bad were always clear on who pays the price for their anti-heroes’ pride: Kaye on the wrong side of the door, or Skyler left holding a bag that includes money laundering and the murder of federal agents. It feels natural then, that a lot of the most recent crime movies have decided to focus on the perspective of women driven to crime by the very thing audiences pay good money to see: the crimes of the men in their lives, whether they’re bank robbers, robber barons, or small-time crooks.
The refrain of mob and heist movie anti-heroes is always “I did it for you,” so it’s no surprise Widows co-writer Gillian Flynn—author of Gone Girl—takes that very idea and dedicates most of a movie to turning it on its head. When her husband and his crew of robbers are killed during a job gone wrong, Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself in debt to a Chicago crime boss who demands she cough up the $2 million her husband stole.
She also comes into possession of a notebook containing intricately detailed schematics for her late husband’s next job—one that will pay off her debtors and leave her riding high, provided she can get together a crew to help pull it off. She turns to the other women whose husbands died during the job, and who are also staring down the consequences their husbands aren’t alive to suffer.
The Kitchen puts Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) in a similar impossible bind when their husbands, all underbosses in a Hell’s Kitchen mob outfit, get arrested and thrown in jail during another job gone wrong. Begging for any work in the crime family, they discover that the menfolk haven’t even been providing any of the protection to local storefronts that is the whole reason locals are supposed to tolerate organized crime.
By the time they’re done cleaning up the mess they’ve been handed, they’re mafia queens ordering (and sometimes performing) hits and commanding respect among rival criminal organizations.
And then there are the stories of crooks who get into it out of a spirit of rebellion, or because of a long-simmering urge to get back at those who have kept them down. It’s telling that the two examples I can think of recently both have the word “hustle” in the title: The Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson buddy comedy The Hustle and Hustlers, starring a seven-foot-tall Jennifer Lopez. That’s the justification in both cases: Crime is about ambition, and in both movies, the women who dive into a life of crime are doing so because the alternative is to live off table scraps in a man’s world.
Hustlers follows Destiny (Constance Wu), an exotic dancer who makes decent bank at the club once she’s brought under Lopez’s wing before then getting hit hard by the financial crash of 2008. Destiny finds she must return to a job that’s only gotten more demeaning as the clientele has grown scarcer. That clientele, of course, is made up of the same assholes who ran the economy off a cliff. If they can get away with that kind of crime, Destiny figures, she and her fellow dancers should be able to rip off a few guys’ company credit cards.
Like The Kitchen, the stakes in Hustlers are focused on how the uncaring world will treat the women and their families if they fail. The poverty and starvation they’re staring down are the direct result of the men in their lives, whether their husbands in the case of Veronica and her crew or their clientele in the case of J-Lo and her fellow entrepreneurs.
It’s the same emotional center in the much less well-regarded The Hustle, the remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that flips the original’s script by having Wilson and Hathaway try to con rich men.
There’s no reason to sit quietly and follow the rules when the game is rigged. There’s no percentage in being a good girl if your reward is to be punished by other people’s mistakes, or by their willful cheating. When society drills into your head over and over again that you need to be out there hustling, that you need to be bringing it home for the family, doesn’t it make sense to rake in as much cash as you can?
Harry: I couldn’t save him, Ronnie! I couldn’t save us! I had to save me! Me! —Widows
The other common streak running through all of these movies is the idea that the women are more dutiful to their convictions, murder and theft aside. The assertion in most of these movies is that the men don’t do it for family or survival but because they’re violent, greedy pieces of shit to begin with. The pretenses of protecting family and providing for community are paper-thin, and they collapse the moment that the going gets tough: The women of The Kitchen are expected to be complicit and kept, but are sent away with sneers and curses when they ask how they’ll survive with their husbands in jail.
Veronica asserts, earlier in the movie, that nobody will ever believe she and her crew could ever have the balls to pull off the job she’s inherited. As it turns out, the film’s final twist reveals that her husband didn’t think so, either. And when Kathy’s husband Jimmy returns from the hole to find her ruling the roost in Hell’s Kitchen, the thought of her being more important than him drives him to try to overthrow her.
In both cases, it goes about as well for them as you’d expect. I can’t imagine why studios are greenlighting and audiences seem to be demanding movies with the central theme of women who aren’t going to take their men’s shit anymore.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can also read his writing at Escapist Magazine and follow him on Twitter and at his blog.