The Wolf Of Wall Street & Scorsese's confrontational films

Feature Ryan Lambie 13 Jan 2014 - 06:56

With The Wolf Of Wall Street in cinemas now, Ryan looks at how Martin Scorsese's drama fits into his confrontational style of filmmaking...

NB: The following contains spoilers for The Wolf Of Wall Street.

There are numerous ways you can react to a situation that makes you angry. You can try to ignore it. You can respond to it with equal aggression. Or, like Martin Scorsese does with his latest film, The Wolf Of Wall Street, you can mock it savagely.

In terms of satire, The Wolf Of Wall Street is akin to two great works from the 60s - Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 (1961), and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). All three approach a dark subject matter with cutting, ironic humour. Catch-22 depicts war as collective insanity, where young men cheerfully go to die while their superiors squabble over rank and medals. Dr. Strangelove suggests that the world's nuclear armaments are in the hands of men who are infantile, psychotic, or both.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is Scorsese's reaction to the 2008 financial crisis, and it comes out in a rambling, raging rush of scenes, dialogue and excess - not unlike the freeform, structurally bewildering Catch-22. Although it isn't specifically about anyone directly involved in the dodgy dealings that led to the greatest economic meltdown since the early 20th century, it aims a pointed finger at the greed and self-interest which underpinned it.

Leonardo DiCaprio's perfectly cast as the young upstart Jordan Belfort, a career-minded stock broker who puts the acquisition of wealth before literally everything else in his life. Having emerged from the Wall Street crash of 1989 without a job, he quickly sets up his own broking firm in a dusty old garage. Repurposing an old con trick of ringing up gullible members of the public and selling them worthless shares, Belfort gives his company a grand-sounding name and starts fleecing America's richest one percent instead. 

In his depiction of the long, long party that follows, Scorsese spares us few details. As the rivers of cash come rolling in from America's most credulous millionaires, Belfort and his rogue's gallery of employees (including Jonah Hill's Donnie, a brilliantly manic creation) set off on an odyssey of hedonism and debauchery. There are office parties with dwarf throwing and showgirls. There is champagne, coke and vintage pharmaceuticals. There are mansions, helicopters and sports cars.

Like Belfort, we're caught up in these scenes of madness - the film's biggest surprise is just how funny it is. Yet like the humour in Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove, the laughter sticks in the throat when you realise what Scorsese's actually trying to show you: these are the kinds of people who look after our financial system. This is the free market economy.

Worse still, we're presented with a minutely illustrated account of Belfort's white-collar crimes, yet he never receives the punishment he deserves. Even when Belfort wipes out a car while high on Quaaludes and the FBI finally catches up with him, he still manages to turn his defeat into a victory: after a few years in a minimum security prison, he's making money again.

The film's perceived amorality has led to no small amount of controversy, particularly in the United States. It was widely reported that, when Scorsese screened the film for the Academy last December, he was loudly harangued by the audience. "Shame on you," one of them cried. Veteran actress Hope Holiday, who was among that audience, described the film as "Three hours of torture". 

Yet Scorsese is merely doing what he's always done in his films: establish a character and let the drama play out. From the very beginning of his career, his films have been about outsiders, whether they're gangsters, taxi drivers on the brink of insanity, uncontrollably aggressive boxers or wannabe TV comedians. He doesn't interject with his own moral messages; instead, he allows his films to swim in a truthful grey area where the distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, wicked and just is harder to distinguish.

Yet Scorsese's opinion of Belfort is there to be seen in The Wolf Of Wall Street if you look for it. In fact, every Scorsese film has a moment where we momentarily see a character for who they really are. In Goodfellas, it's that final shot of Ray Liotta's character, standing on the front doorstep of his suburban home in his dressing gown. Look how apologetic, small and emasculated he looks in that moment.

In The Wolf Of Wall Street, the greatest insight we get into Jordan Belfort comes late in the film, where he's engages in a violent row with his wife Naomi (Margot Robbie). It's here, where he's so enraged that he crashes his car with his young daughter in the seat next to him, that we see the darker individual lurking behind the broad smile. Suddenly, Belfort's drug abuse and selfishness doesn't seem quite so funny anymore.

By refusing to openly condemn Belfort's actions, Scorsese doesn't let the audience off the hook, either. And just as Taxi Driver left us compelled yet horrified by Travis Bickle's actions, so The Wolf Of Wall Street forces us to come to our own conclusions rather than mindlessly accept the one fed to us. If we're exhilarated by Belfort's riches, what does that say about us? 

More than that, Scorsese wants us to be outraged by his film. He wants us to feel irked that someone could embezzle millions of dollars from an unspecified number of people and still not go to prison for it - a situation not unlike the aftermath of the financial collapse six years ago.

Or, as Scorsese himself brilliantly put it in a conversation about his film with Deadline:

"To present characters like this on the screen, have them reach some emotional crisis, and to see them punished for what they’ve done, all it does is make us feel better. And we’re the victims, the people watching onscreen. So to do something that has an obvious moral message, where two characters sit in the film and hash it out, or where you have titles at the end of the film explaining the justice, the audience expects that. They’ve been inured to it.

" I didn’t want them to be able to think problem solved, and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world, and everything down to our children and how they’re going to live, and their values in the future."

That Scorsese could make such a pointed, relevant and downright aggressive film - and it's one of the most aggressive films of the past few years in many ways, from its language right down to its editing - at this stage of his career is little short of remarkable, and it's entirely of a piece with his long and sublime body of confrontational work.

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