Anything that’s any good seems to be about pretty much everything. “Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t a documentary about the folk-music scene; it’s about the existential tricks of time—the terrible, subtle blow that knocks a person from the vanguard to the sidelines, from the promise of youth to the nostalgia of age in a single moment. I found myself thinking about my colleague Adam Gopnik’s recent piece in the magazine about Duke Ellington—about how it must have felt for Ellington and the other luminaries of swing, around 1941, when they found out about the young modernists up at Minton’s, whose music, soon known as bebop, made the big-band sound an instant relic.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is even more capacious. Let’s start with that last shot, which I cited but remained coy about when writing about the movie before it opened. By now, there has been enough discussion for everyone to know that it shows an audience—attendees at a sales-technique seminar held by Jordan Belfort, in New Zealand, after his release from prison. Belfort challenges those in the front row, one by one, to sell him a pen. None of them has a clue, and Scorsese’s camera rises over their heads to scan the yearning, vacant faces of the aspirants in the rows behind them.
It’s a moment with a terrifying, Olympian blend of compassion, disdain, and anguish; it shows a fatal lack of imagination combined with a desperate range of unfulfilled desires. The shot shows not justan audience, but the audience: Scorsese puts the film’s viewers face to face with themselves, charges us with compensating for our lack of imagination and fatal ambition through contact with the wiles of a master manipulator. Just as the fictionalized Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is presented at the seminar by a host (who, in a diabolical cameo, is played by the real-life Belfort), so we, the movie audience, have been introduced to Belfort by another enthusiastic impresario, namely Martin Scorsese, who knows perfectly well that he is giving us something that we want, something that we need, and something that taps into dreams and ambitions that are both central to life and completely suspect.
As with the ending of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Gertrud” and John Ford’s “7 Women,” the end of “The Wolf of Wall Street” renounces a world of horrors even as it embraces its destructive passions. The difference is that Scorsese’s vision is utterly unromantic: the ideal that he has in mind isn’t within the grasp of human endeavor. Scorsese’s movie is hardly about Wall Street, even less about the specific mechanisms of Belfort’s financial fraud. (Though they’re pretty fascinating—despite Belfort’s comic demurrals: the fraudster seems to have had as good a time concocting his schemes as he did profitting from them.) Rather, the movie is about the drives and urges, the pleasures and the self-indulgences, the power plays and manipulations, the ingratiations and deceptions, the allegiances and the compromises and the calculations on which human society runs—about life in this fallen world.
Too much has been made of the movie’s lack of attention to Belfort’s victims. The complaint is shortsighted: the victims are everywhere. Early on, some are heard on the phone, looking to make money through investments that they don’t earn (take seriously, after all, the lurid concept of “unearned income” and let he who has no 401(k) throw the first stone). Later, others are shown studying Belfort’s sales techniques in order to move from the ranks of the taken to those of the takers. To see Belfort’s victims, look in the mirror—and look there to see Belfort’s collaborators, too. There are no innocents in Scorsese’s vision; the movie is a unified field of dubious desire, of temptation, evil, and sin.
Scorsese, in depicting with great exuberance a sinner who, for his part, also describes his sins exuberantly, brings to light the mighty unconscious of humanity. The difference between Belfort and his victims—and between the fictionalized Belfort and his viewers—is that he does what we would but don’t dare, he says what we think and feel but suppress. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the first modern movie about the world of finance because it situates money in the so-called libidinal economy. Scorsese’s vision of power also involves humiliation; his understanding of wealth isn’t just luxurious and carnal, it’s also excremental, sanguinary, emetic, carnivalesque, and violent.
Scorsese has created a movie for the moment—for the age of utter transparency. The secrets are out of the bag. The time is over when a president could use the White House as his private pleasure dome, and Jay Gatsby’s alias and persona wouldn’t last five minutes in the age of the Internet. (Fitzgerald’s novel pierces the veneer of high society to reveal the carnal motives and behind-the-scenes depredations on which its gentility is built.) It’s worth comparing the movie to Roula Khalaf’s 1991 report, in Forbes, which made Belfort infamous (the reporting and its results are dramatized in the film). It details some of Belfort and his firm’s dubious dealings—but has nothing to say about Belfort’s lifestyle. Khalaf may not have seen decadent doings like those in the movie; those to whom she talked about Belfort may not have known, or may not have said anything. For whatever reason, she sticks to the finances.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is an X-ray of the ubiquitous and the inadmissible. It lends new meaning to the tell-all: there’s no fleeting desire or base thought that can flicker through Belfort’s mind that Scorsese can’t or won’t show—and nothing he shows flickering onto the screen that can’t give outrageous delight. That’s the reason for the critical outcry. It’s tempting to ascribe the complaints to an op-ed mentality—to critics who fall back on politics to justify their involvement with anything so suspect as the entertainment industry or so frivolous as aesthetic pleasures, and the more extreme the aesthetic (as in the case of Scorsese’s movie), the more righteous the response in the name of principle. But there’s something else at stake in their reproaches that gets even closer to the specific greatness of Scorsese’s achievement. Critics railing at the movie aren’t just railing at Belfort, or even at the world; those who are decrying its extremes are maintaining their own innocence, protesting all too much their immunity to its temptations.
In a recent interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, Scorsese speaks about sin and redemption, citing his adolescent viewing of “The Threepenny Opera,” and Mack the Knife’s final monologue: “exactly like Chaplin in ‘Monsieur Verdoux,’ he flings back at his accusers their own turpitudes.” He says of his characters in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “I’m really afraid that there’s no redemption possible for the wolves,” and adds:
I’m a lapsed Catholic, for sure. Which is what allows me to make films, to work in the entertainment business. Otherwise, I wouldn’t make any concessions. I’d be praying constantly. Making films means grappling with the outer world, confronting it.
In the interview, Scorsese discusses his own years wasted on drug use in the seventies, and admits:
I was like Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street”: I wanted to go to the very end of my limits. I almost died from it. The day that I looked at myself, I saw a disappointing man. I admit that there are certain elements in Leonardo DiCaprio’s character that are autobiographical. I lived a crazy period. I had finished shooting “The Last Waltz,” which was the height of madness, and I began working on “Raging Bull.” Everything changed. I’m not like Mack the Knife, who doesn’t make anything, doesn’t produce anything. I create. It makes a hell of a difference.
What Belfort creates is a world—the spectacle of dereliction that makes for so much entertainment, for art high and low, precisely because of its universality. Scorsese freely admits his ambition: “To reveal…something about human nature. Nothing else is interesting. That’s what art is; nothing but that.” The statement is both grandiose and general, and I suppose that most filmmakers, regardless of talent, might say as much. But the exceptional audacity—and the highly crafted, deliriously confected intricacy—with which Scorsese calibrates the thrill of corruption makes it both an accurate statement of his achievement and an accurate diagnosis of why it makes so many viewers (and, especially, so many critics) so uncomfortable.
The cinematic felicities of “The Wolf of Wall Street” are almost too many to mention. What lifts Scorsese and his cast and crew to such heights of creation is the deep, strong, and volatile source material—not merely Belfort’s life, deeds, and book, but the vast internal energies that they draw on, and that Scorsese and company face up to with an unrestrained fascination and find echoes of, at great risk, in themselves.
P.S. The movie’s detractors will, in the light of history, look as ridiculous as those who, in the early nineteen-thirties, decried Howard Hawks’s “Scarface,” requiring that it be released with a didactic prologue, a didactic insert, a didactic ending, and a subtitle (“The Shame of a Nation”). It’s worth noting that both movies, each in its way, involves prohibition. In Hawks’s film, blood is shed over efforts to control the trade in illegal drinks; in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the trade in illegal drugs takes place mainly behind the scenes, but provides Belfort with the original group of “bandmates” that he recruits—almost all of them his old friends from Bayside, nearly all of whom are petty drug dealers.