I’ve always thought of finance as a form of alchemy. It involves the arcane manipulation of ancient symbology (i.e. “numbers”) in order to turn shit into gold, and sometimes back again. It is a mysterious Dark Art that some find intriguing and intoxicating, and others find it bewildering or disgusting. Finance is at best the foundation of our sophisticated economic society, and at worst a vile Pandora’s Box of intangible lurking terror. But Matthew McConaughey’s character describes it best in a fantastic early monologue: “it’s fairy dust.”
The at once attractive and repulsive Sodom and Gemmorrah landscape of the finance world is the subject of Martin Scorsese’s latest picture, an utterly chaotic three hour marathon of amorality and excess that takes viewers through the life and times of Jordan Belfort, a post-Gekko greed machine and white-collar criminal mastermind of the 1990s. This is easily Scorsese’s most artistically unrepentant and philosophically honest film since Goodfellas (1990), and ranks among the director’s finest work to date.
With films like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas, and Casino (1995), Martin Scorsese has made it his life’s work to reveal and give voice to the specifically masculine criminal darkness that, in America, hides in plain view. Considering his artistic proclivities and philosophical outlook, one may wonder why it’s taken Scorsese so long to tackle the finance industry. The high-powered white-collar villains that impregnate our economy like worms through a corpse are cut from the same cloth as any of his previous subjects.
Most likely, he just didn’t have the right figurehead until recently. The real Jordan Belfort published the first of two memoirs in 2007, apparently following the suggestion of prison buddy Tommy Chong (yes, that Tommy Chong). The resulting subject matter is an adrenaline blur of drugs, strippers, and fathomless oceans of dirty money, forming a fragmented and epic anti-narrative absolutely screaming for long-form filmic adaptation. And when it comes to long-form filmic adaptation, nobody does it like Marty.
The script is penned by Boardwalk Empire showrunner Terence Winter, and wisely employs the kind of plotless structure found in much of Scorsese’s greatest work. (After winning a painfully long-awaited Oscar for 2006’s The Departed, Scorsese quipped that he had only won because it was “the first movie I’ve done with a plot.”) In addition to the film’s rejection of rote plot mechanics, the script deliberately eschews meaningful character development, in clever comment on the fundamentally stagnant nature of the human soul and the accompanying futility of spiritual redemption.
What’s notable about Belfort’s character arc is that there is no character arc. A comment by investigating agent Patrick Denham highlights what is so interesting (and perhaps uniquely evil) about Belfort.
You know, most of the Wall Street jackasses I bust, they were born to the life. Their father was a douchebag before them, and his father before that. But you, you got this way all on your own. Good for you, Jordan.
So unlike most white-collar criminals, Belfort didn’t get involved in financial crime because of deep-seated familial or institutional connections. It was all him. He is who he is. In this way, the film does not ask why someone would commit massive securities fraud. Rather, it asks why wouldn’t you commit massive securities fraud? Belfort didn’t do it for any particular reason. He did it because that’s what you do.
Much of the love this movie has gotten has centered on Leonardo DiCaprio’s absolutely remarkable performance. And deservedly so! DiCaprio has put in the best work of an already quite admirable career. His passion for and dedication to the role is something no viewer can miss. But the rest of the movie is very well cast, too. Jonah Hill continues to progress as a legitimately respectable albeit primarily comedic actor, and Margot Robbie delivers the perfect combination of sultry femininity and icy, almost spooky physicality.
Some other commentators have praised the film’s unstoppably hilarious sense of black humor. Again, this movie deserves 100% of that praise. It’s a fantastically vulgar, pull-no-punches politically incorrect riot. I couldn’t stop laughing.
But ultimately, it’s the film’s ability to engage in its own meta-commentary that makes it a truly great piece of work. Early on in the film, Jordan is upset by what he believed to be a “hatchet job” by Forbes magazine. He had agreed to an interview, believing he would be depicted as a shrewd businessman and young visionary of the capital markets. Instead, he’s characterized as a slimy, corrupt, and passionately egotistical worm. But in an ironic and profoundly humorous reversal, the article did not turn him into a pariah of the finance world. It made him its rock star. And that is precisely what this movie exists to demonstrate.
As is the case in Marty’s other great male epics, the perverse magic of this film is in its continuous and brutal ethical interrogation of the viewer. We watch Jordan exploit the powerless, abuse drugs, sexually humiliate women, beat his wife, terrify his kid, and ultimately sacrifice all he holds dear to the altar of his own insatiable ego…and yet we love him. We worship him, in fact.
As viewers become enraptured by this film’s telescoping virility and it’s unyielding lust for life, we are just like the hordes of Wall Street interns desperately brandishing our resumes begging to get in on the action. We are down-on-our-luck gamblers at Ace Rothstein’s casino. We are one of Jake LaMotta’s hollering uncouth boxing fans and one of Henry Hill’s obsequious aspiring wiseguys.
By now, Scorsese’s career has become vast and varied. But its enduring characteristic and primary significance for American culture is his films’ ability to show Americans for what we really are. Scorsese demands that we ask ourselves, really ponder, whether our mass-distributed and mechanically standardized values really mean anything to us deep down, anything at all, or if we too are really just motivated by bottomless greed and vicious sexual desire. He understands that in real life, the protagonist and the antagonist are often the same person.
It is absolutely no mistake that the film’s final shot is of the mystified and clueless attendees at Jordan Belfort’s motivational business skills seminar. By ending with a shot of this plebeian theater audience, Scorsese is literally showing us a mirror.
This is the hallowed province of cinema itself, and it misses the point entirely to view the movie as in any way condescending to its audience. Scorsese is just not interested in moralizing from an ethical high ground or scolding his characters. Far from a morality fable, this is an exploratory and specifically non-judgmental depiction of a lifetime of sublime social transgression, which by its very nature lacks moral content. But that does not make it devoid of artistic value; indeed, it amplifies the film’s artistic value.
Psychoanalytic philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek once said,
The problem for us is not, “are our desires satisfied or not?” The problem is, “how do we know what we desire?” There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural, about human desires. Our desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire. Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire –it tells you how to desire.
More than any other movie this year, The Wolf of Wall Street causes viewers to experience this phenomenon. It is a fantastic and massively pure dose of cinematic perception, and one that goes far beyond the mere exploitation of our personal or political anxieties. Rather, Scorsese delves deep into the black waters of our intractable capacity for desire, which is the paradox at the very foundation of human folly.