The Wolf of Wall Street

21/05/2024

Perhaps Martin Scorsese’s greatest film remains Taxi Driver. It isn’t only that it has so completely entered the culture that a prosaic line like “are you talking to me?” is taken as a reference to the film, nor that it led a Jodie Foster obsessive to try and assassinate President Reagan. That is all very well but what makes it one of the great films of the seventies is that it constantly calls attention to its own unreliability, asking us to identify with a character whose hold on reality is precarious, and which leaves our understanding of the film unsound as well.

   In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort is pretty unsound too, but Scorsese doesn’t create a paranoiac atmosphere reflecting Belfort’s mind; he offers a brilliantly engaging account of his excesses. Playing Belfort, Leonardo Di Caprio said “my attitude about doing this movie is we were trying to depict a modern day Caligula and all the debauchery that comes with it.” (Collider) In Taxi Driver, Scorsese offered a troublesome and deliberate form with overhead insert shots of table items, empty shots of corridors and disorienting panning shots around spaces. In The Wolf of Wall Street, the form is tamed, constantly serving the story but in a manner that shows Scorsese as fully deserving that tired term a master of his craft. As Tyler Sage notes, “numerous critics have celebrated the film’s technical genius, its brilliant comedic scenes, and it’s almost addictive watchability." (Bright Lights Film Journal) He quotes Richard Brody of the New Yorker saying: "It’s like mainlining cinema for three hours, and I wouldn’t have wanted it a minute shorter.” Examples of this craft as tamed form come when we view events from one apparently reliable angle only to then see what did happen. On an overnight flight to Switzerland, Belfort assumes he's had a good night's sleep. He then realises he is strapped to his seat as his colleague Donnie (Jonah Hill) explains why as the film moves into a brief flashback of the night before: drink, drugs and attempting to hump the various air stewards. In a later scene, Belfort reckons he has somehow managed to drive his Lamborghini back home safely despite losing his motor skills to Quaaludes. The film then shows us the reality, a flashback, where he careers into any available vehicle between the country club and his home. Belfort might not be much of a reliable narrator, but we can be assured that Scorsese happens to be as he sets us right in the wake of Belfort’s drug-induced fabulations. 

    If The Wolf of Wall Streets seems far from Taxi Driver, it is a close cousin to Casino and a closer one still to Goodfellas. These are films where Scorsese upped the informational ante in American cinema by combining voiceover narration, different film speeds, rapid montages and prompt shifts in tone. These are all present here as well. When it looks like we might be getting some serious information on money that is being shifted to Swiss bank accounts, instead Di Caprio’s voice-over tells us of the drugs he will take to endure a long-haul flight and the debauchery he indulges in before getting on it. When it shows Belfort and others eating out, the camera slows down the frames and then speeds them up. All the while Di Caprio is babbling in voice-over and competes with the non-diegetic song, is seen in a club for a few seconds of screen time with another song diegetically on the soundtrack, before he ends up in bed with someone as we return to the initial song non-diegetically. 

     Sage sees that this is all very wonderfully done but he also says the film lacks the quality of “self-struggle, of [an] awareness of the relationship between the world it is picturing and the modes of its own construction.” (Bright Lights Film Journal) Scorsese depicts the world he shows us with great skill but he doesn’t at the same time question this world as he does in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, which aren’t entertaining films. They are perplexed examinations of character, as though the impressive form Scorsese adopts in both instances goes into the viewer questioning the choices made, and all the better to realise that Scorsese wants us to question the form as he wants us to question the character. Belfort takes us along for the ride, even more than Henry Hill in Good Fellas and much more so than Ace in Casino

     If the style here is similar to those two earlier works of virtuoso cinema the tone is more agreeable, with Scorsese showing us Belfort as a self-absorbed greedy narcissist but it is easy to forget within this three-hour film there are moments of terrible violence: when his gay butler gets a beating after having an orgy in Belfort’s apartment - and where Belfort finds money is missing - and when Belfort’s second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) is punched in the stomach. These are far from forgettable moments but in one way they are — within the density of information and the many humorous incidents in the film few will come away from The Wolf of Wall Street with these images in their mind unless they actively seek to retain them. In Good Fellas, Scorsese consistently makes a point of telling us his characters are problematic people - from a killing early on that the gangsters feel no compunction over as they then go and eat, to Hill beating up a neighbour who might have designs on his girlfriend. 

      When critics have accused Scorsese of focusing so much on Belfort that he all but ignores his victims this is a weak criticism from one perspective and a strong one from another. It is weak because the critics seem to be asking for a different sort of film; one closer to the network narrative films (City of Hope, Beautiful PeopleCode Inconnu and Crash) that move from one person’s story to another. It would be the only way to show victims who are indirectly being destroyed by Belfort’s schemes. This is the difference between not so much victimless crimes and victimful ones but between proximate and distant victims. Scorsese shows that the victims in Good Fellas and Casino are there, in front of the people who are persecuting them. In The Wolf of Wall Street, they are almost always absent. It would take a very different form from the one Scorsese deploys and has long since mastered to bring in those injured parties, if for no better reason than Scorsese’s achievement is often to show injuries categorically depicted not symbolically so. There have been good films on the collateral damage of finance (from It’s a Wonderful Life to 99 Homes) and the intricacies involved (Narrow Margin and Arbitrage). However, these are sober films in every sense of the term, while Scorsese’s is about addiction and he sees Belfort’s relationship with greed as part of it. While for Gordon Gecko in Wall Street greed is good, for Belfort greed is God, a way of filling a meaningless vacuum with as much hedonism as he can practice. For Scorsese to have retreated from this focus and incorporated those losing out would have been to dilute the intensity he seeks. It might be a terrible claim but the reason why the victims are so present in so many other Scorsese films, and so absent from this one, is because they receive beatings that are part of the adrenaline rush of the protagonists’ lives. Cutting to someone in a house elsewhere as a bloke tells his wife he has lost the family savings wouldn’t have added anything here to Scorsese high-octane aesthetic. It would have countered the potency; not added anything to it. 

    Early on, the victims do exist but only as a presence verbally and generally — Belfort teaches his team how to push the hard sell and on the other end of the line we hear people’s reluctance before they accept. These are exploited people but Scorsese stays with the addictive fix of the sell. He even finds a form for the homogenised victim: taking what would usually be one sell to one person, the film cuts from one seller to the next as half a dozen of them convince half a dozen buyers to take on shares. All the while the camera moves giddily amongst Belfort's team, as though any drugs the characters will be taking (and they take plenty) will be a weak thrill next to making money. 

    Making money is what Belfort does, because he doesn’t seem very good at making love and has no interest in making things. His verb/noun of choice is to make cash — just as Scorsese’s gangsters do likewise but with a greater sense in the other films of them coming up against obstacles along the way: like a fist, a boot or a gun. This potentially could give The Wolf of Wall Street an antagonistic weakness, as though Belfort has nothing much to come up against as he keeps accumulating a fortune. This though is part of the film’s achievement: that Belfort keeps ascending with very little to counter this rise. The closest is the FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) who will eventually take him down but the film is chiefly an exploration of self-sabotage as pleasure principle. Belfort is a man who never knows when to let go of a high. When he is ready to announce his resignation from the company he has built up, Stratton Oakmont, his initial speech is sentimental and subdued, but he sounds like a man coming down from a drug he himself has created: his own monstrous ego. He then decides he will stay after all and with such bombastic language that within a minute he has everyone jumping up on tables and dancing to a chant he learnt earlier in the film from the even crazier Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Hanna was the man who taught him all he needed to know about the stock market, including, most importantly, to get rid of libidinal juices to avoid your head getting messed up by all the numbers swimming around in it. What Hanna teaches him is that finance is all about oneself; about desires and drives, controlled and expelled. This isn’t quite the gangster world where people watch their backs; it is one where people need to monitor their wants as the dangers are mainly self-inflicted. 

     In some ways, Scorsese’s film can feel predictable and this is where the criticism of his approach might seem strong. He isn't just drawing on a well-established tradition of rise and fall narrative arcing here that certain genres push (the musical biopic; the political drama; the tycoon film and of course the gangster movie); it is also one Scorses has himself adopted often enough: not just Good Fellas, and Casino, but also The Aviator and Raging Bull. He has often shown characters hooked on high-energy situations and while he might not have wished to show those who are victims of Belfort, he could have adopted a more aloof and restrained style. One that shows while this world might be very exciting for the central character, it is not so exciting for everyone else who are victim to his scams. Most of those watching might not have been directly destroyed by Belfort, but many might be very indirectly at the mercy of high finance. A sober approach could have kept the victims off-screen by proposing that we in the audience looking on might just be amongst them. 

         Yet the film's freshness lies in three areas, hooking up the potentially dry finance film with testosterone, dopamine and daft levels of drug abuse; seeing Oakmont as essentially a criminal organisation but without the constant risk of prison sentences, maiming and death, and finding a form to contain these elements over three hours. Scorsese’s form is epic in the Aristotelian sense of being made up of many parts and covering many years in Belfort’s life. But the unity it offers lies in the unprincipled principles Belfort lives by: he lives purely for pleasure, with work an extension of that principle and not contrary to it. Scorsese and his scriptwriter Terence Winter (who wrote 25 episodes of The Sopranos) manage to give the film a unified flow as it passes from one vignette to the other, with ever more exorbitant wealth arriving at ever more things to spend it on. At one moment, Belfort says in voiceover he and his colleagues were making more money than they knew what to do with, and what do you do then? You go and buy a huge ring for your lover and go and get married — but not before spending even more money on your bachelor party which involves a private jet, numerous hookers and so many drugs that Belfort describes the plane as a pharmacy with wings. 

     Yet this is where we might wonder if Scorsese is complicit with the intemperance since his purpose has usually been to immerse us in the worlds he films. We have noted that in Taxi Driver he manages this remove by techniques that don’t serve the story but potentially alienate the viewer from the diegesis. The Wolf of Wall Street’s techniques are always intensifying it: the voice-over, the montages, even direct-to- camera addresses. However, at the end of the film Scorsese offers two scenes that make us muse over the presence of Belfort in contemporary life. The first shows Denham on the subway looking across at others no doubt with Belfort’s remark from years earlier still present in his mind: “good luck on that subway ride home to your miserable ugly fucking wives.” The film cuts from the subway to Belfort on a prison bus about to serve time. The other comes when Belfort is released and making money as a motivational speaker, asking those present to sell him a pen. It is a reference to a scene much earlier in the film where the core team are around a table and Belfort has told them all normal people want to become rich. At the end, the camera passes through the crowd of these wannabe wealthies and we might link the scene to the one of the subway, and look back on this earlier one where Belfort reckons everybody wants to make big money. What we see is the dejected faces of those on the subway and the hopeful faces of those at the motivational course. We might assume this is all just a reflection of the American Dream. But in the latter sequence, the accents are antipodean. Belfort is spreading his hope far and wide, yet is there the fertile soil for it we might wonder. As Scorsese says “I’m 71. And in the past 30 years or so, I’ve seen the change in the country, what values were and where they’ve gone. The values now are only quite honestly about what makes money.” (Deadline). Here we see Belfort out of jail and proposing to the rest of the world that what matters is selling. It might lack the radical ambiguity of Taxi Driver, but Belfort like Bickle is back out on the street and capable of doing a lot more damage, even if now it will be in advice he is giving to the many poor. They will almost certainyl remain so all the better that off their hopes a few like Belfort will get very rich indeed. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Wolf of Wall Street

Perhaps Martin Scorsese's greatest film remains Taxi Driver. It isn't only that it has so completely entered the culture that a prosaic line like "are you talking to me?" is taken as a reference to the film, nor that it led a Jodie Foster obsessive to try and assassinate President Reagan. That is all very well but what makes it one of the great films of the seventies is that it constantly calls attention to its own unreliability, asking us to identify with a character whose hold on reality is precarious, and which leaves our understanding of the film unsound as well.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort is pretty unsound too, but Scorsese doesn't create a paranoiac atmosphere reflecting Belfort's mind; he offers a brilliantly engaging account of his excesses. Playing Belfort, Leonardo Di Caprio said "my attitude about doing this movie is we were trying to depict a modern day Caligula and all the debauchery that comes with it." (Collider) In Taxi Driver, Scorsese offered a troublesome and deliberate form with overhead insert shots of table items, empty shots of corridors and disorienting panning shots around spaces. In The Wolf of Wall Street, the form is tamed, constantly serving the story but in a manner that shows Scorsese as fully deserving that tired term a master of his craft. As Tyler Sage notes, "numerous critics have celebrated the film's technical genius, its brilliant comedic scenes, and it's almost addictive watchability. (Bright Lights Film Journal) He quotes Richard Brody of the New Yorker saying: It's like mainlining cinema for three hours, and I wouldn't have wanted it a minute shorter." Examples of this craft as tamed form come when we view events from one apparently reliable angle only to then see what did happen. On an overnight flight to Switzerland, Belfort assumes he's had a good night's sleep. He then realises he is strapped to his seat as his colleague Donnie (Jonah Hill) explains why as the film moves into a brief flashback of the night before: drink, drugs and attempting to hump the various air stewards. In a later scene, Belfort reckons he has somehow managed to drive his Lamborghini back home safely despite losing his motor skills to Quaaludes. The film then shows us the reality, a flashback, where he careers into any available vehicle between the country club and his home. Belfort might not be much of a reliable narrator, but we can be assured that Scorsese happens to be as he sets us right in the wake of Belfort's drug-induced fabulations.

If The Wolf of Wall Streets seems far from Taxi Driver, it is a close cousin to Casino and a closer one still to Goodfellas. These are films where Scorsese upped the informational ante in American cinema by combining voiceover narration, different film speeds, rapid montages and prompt shifts in tone. These are all present here as well. When it looks like we might be getting some serious information on money that is being shifted to Swiss bank accounts, instead Di Caprio's voice-over tells us of the drugs he will take to endure a long-haul flight and the debauchery he indulges in before getting on it. When it shows Belfort and others eating out, the camera slows down the frames and then speeds them up. All the while Di Caprio is babbling in voice-over and competes with the non-diegetic song, is seen in a club for a few seconds of screen time with another song diegetically on the soundtrack, before he ends up in bed with someone as we return to the initial song non-diegetically.

Sage sees that this is all very wonderfully done but he also says the film lacks the quality of "self-struggle, of [an] awareness of the relationship between the world it is picturing and the modes of its own construction." (Bright Lights Film Journal) Scorsese depicts the world he shows us with great skill but he doesn't at the same time question this world as he does in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, which aren't entertaining films. They are perplexed examinations of character, as though the impressive form Scorsese adopts in both instances goes into the viewer questioning the choices made, and all the better to realise that Scorsese wants us to question the form as he wants us to question the character. Belfort takes us along for the ride, even more than Henry Hill in Good Fellas and much more so than Ace in Casino.

If the style here is similar to those two earlier works of virtuoso cinema the tone is more agreeable, with Scorsese showing us Belfort as a self-absorbed greedy narcissist but it is easy to forget within this three-hour film there are moments of terrible violence: when his gay butler gets a beating after having an orgy in Belfort's apartment - and where Belfort finds money is missing - and when Belfort's second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) is punched in the stomach. These are far from forgettable moments but in one way they are within the density of information and the many humorous incidents in the film few will come away from The Wolf of Wall Street with these images in their mind unless they actively seek to retain them. In Good Fellas, Scorsese consistently makes a point of telling us his characters are problematic people - from a killing early on that the gangsters feel no compunction over as they then go and eat, to Hill beating up a neighbour who might have designs on his girlfriend.

When critics have accused Scorsese of focusing so much on Belfort that he all but ignores his victims this is a weak criticism from one perspective and a strong one from another. It is weak because the critics seem to be asking for a different sort of film; one closer to the network narrative films (City of Hope, Beautiful People, Code Inconnu and Crash) that move from one person's story to another. It would be the only way to show victims who are indirectly being destroyed by Belfort's schemes. This is the difference between not so much victimless crimes and victimful ones but between proximate and distant victims. Scorsese shows that the victims in Good Fellas and Casino are there, in front of the people who are persecuting them. In The Wolf of Wall Street, they are almost always absent. It would take a very different form from the one Scorsese deploys and has long since mastered to bring in those injured parties, if for no better reason than Scorsese's achievement is often to show injuries categorically depicted not symbolically so. There have been good films on the collateral damage of finance (from It's a Wonderful Life to 99 Homes) and the intricacies involved (Narrow Margin and Arbitrage). However, these are sober films in every sense of the term, while Scorsese's is about addiction and he sees Belfort's relationship with greed as part of it. While for Gordon Gecko in Wall Street greed is good, for Belfort greed is God, a way of filling a meaningless vacuum with as much hedonism as he can practice. For Scorsese to have retreated from this focus and incorporated those losing out would have been to dilute the intensity he seeks. It might be a terrible claim but the reason why the victims are so present in so many other Scorsese films, and so absent from this one, is because they receive beatings that are part of the adrenaline rush of the protagonists' lives. Cutting to someone in a house elsewhere as a bloke tells his wife he has lost the family savings wouldn't have added anything here to Scorsese high-octane aesthetic. It would have countered the potency; not added anything to it.

Early on, the victims do exist but only as a presence verbally and generally Belfort teaches his team how to push the hard sell and on the other end of the line we hear people's reluctance before they accept. These are exploited people but Scorsese stays with the addictive fix of the sell. He even finds a form for the homogenised victim: taking what would usually be one sell to one person, the film cuts from one seller to the next as half a dozen of them convince half a dozen buyers to take on shares. All the while the camera moves giddily amongst Belfort's team, as though any drugs the characters will be taking (and they take plenty) will be a weak thrill next to making money.

Making money is what Belfort does, because he doesn't seem very good at making love and has no interest in making things. His verb/noun of choice is to make cash just as Scorsese's gangsters do likewise but with a greater sense in the other films of them coming up against obstacles along the way: like a fist, a boot or a gun. This potentially could give The Wolf of Wall Street an antagonistic weakness, as though Belfort has nothing much to come up against as he keeps accumulating a fortune. This though is part of the film's achievement: that Belfort keeps ascending with very little to counter this rise. The closest is the FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) who will eventually take him down but the film is chiefly an exploration of self-sabotage as pleasure principle. Belfort is a man who never knows when to let go of a high. When he is ready to announce his resignation from the company he has built up, Stratton Oakmont, his initial speech is sentimental and subdued, but he sounds like a man coming down from a drug he himself has created: his own monstrous ego. He then decides he will stay after all and with such bombastic language that within a minute he has everyone jumping up on tables and dancing to a chant he learnt earlier in the film from the even crazier Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Hanna was the man who taught him all he needed to know about the stock market, including, most importantly, to get rid of libidinal juices to avoid your head getting messed up by all the numbers swimming around in it. What Hanna teaches him is that finance is all about oneself; about desires and drives, controlled and expelled. This isn't quite the gangster world where people watch their backs; it is one where people need to monitor their wants as the dangers are mainly self-inflicted.

In some ways, Scorsese's film can feel predictable and this is where the criticism of his approach might seem strong. He isn't just drawing on a well-established tradition of rise and fall narrative arcing here that certain genres push (the musical biopic; the political drama; the tycoon film and of course the gangster movie); it is also one Scorses has himself adopted often enough: not just Good Fellas, and Casino, but also The Aviator and Raging Bull. He has often shown characters hooked on high-energy situations and while he might not have wished to show those who are victims of Belfort, he could have adopted a more aloof and restrained style. One that shows while this world might be very exciting for the central character, it is not so exciting for everyone else who are victim to his scams. Most of those watching might not have been directly destroyed by Belfort, but many might be very indirectly at the mercy of high finance. A sober approach could have kept the victims off-screen by proposing that we in the audience looking on might just be amongst them.

Yet the film's freshness lies in three areas, hooking up the potentially dry finance film with testosterone, dopamine and daft levels of drug abuse; seeing Oakmont as essentially a criminal organisation but without the constant risk of prison sentences, maiming and death, and finding a form to contain these elements over three hours. Scorsese's form is epic in the Aristotelian sense of being made up of many parts and covering many years in Belfort's life. But the unity it offers lies in the unprincipled principles Belfort lives by: he lives purely for pleasure, with work an extension of that principle and not contrary to it. Scorsese and his scriptwriter Terence Winter (who wrote 25 episodes of The Sopranos) manage to give the film a unified flow as it passes from one vignette to the other, with ever more exorbitant wealth arriving at ever more things to spend it on. At one moment, Belfort says in voiceover he and his colleagues were making more money than they knew what to do with, and what do you do then? You go and buy a huge ring for your lover and go and get married but not before spending even more money on your bachelor party which involves a private jet, numerous hookers and so many drugs that Belfort describes the plane as a pharmacy with wings.

Yet this is where we might wonder if Scorsese is complicit with the intemperance since his purpose has usually been to immerse us in the worlds he films. We have noted that in Taxi Driver he manages this remove by techniques that don't serve the story but potentially alienate the viewer from the diegesis. The Wolf of Wall Street's techniques are always intensifying it: the voice-over, the montages, even direct-to- camera addresses. However, at the end of the film Scorsese offers two scenes that make us muse over the presence of Belfort in contemporary life. The first shows Denham on the subway looking across at others no doubt with Belfort's remark from years earlier still present in his mind: "good luck on that subway ride home to your miserable ugly fucking wives." The film cuts from the subway to Belfort on a prison bus about to serve time. The other comes when Belfort is released and making money as a motivational speaker, asking those present to sell him a pen. It is a reference to a scene much earlier in the film where the core team are around a table and Belfort has told them all normal people want to become rich. At the end, the camera passes through the crowd of these wannabe wealthies and we might link the scene to the one of the subway, and look back on this earlier one where Belfort reckons everybody wants to make big money. What we see is the dejected faces of those on the subway and the hopeful faces of those at the motivational course. We might assume this is all just a reflection of the American Dream. But in the latter sequence, the accents are antipodean. Belfort is spreading his hope far and wide, yet is there the fertile soil for it we might wonder. As Scorsese says "I'm 71. And in the past 30 years or so, I've seen the change in the country, what values were and where they've gone. The values now are only quite honestly about what makes money." (Deadline). Here we see Belfort out of jail and proposing to the rest of the world that what matters is selling. It might lack the radical ambiguity of Taxi Driver, but Belfort like Bickle is back out on the street and capable of doing a lot more damage, even if now it will be in advice he is giving to the many poor. They will almost certainyl remain so all the better that off their hopes a few like Belfort will get very rich indeed.


© Tony McKibbin