With the Academy Award-nominated comic-drama The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), revered filmmaker Martin Scorsese has made a great American epic for our times. It’s a picture to enthral, revile and repulse; an illicitly bewitching Bacchanalian vision of a proximate hell. Scorsese has always understood the complex relationship between seduction and repulsion, and the film is a sprawling manifestation of that central tension; it’s a testament to the innate power of cinema. The director posits wanton, uninhibited debauchery as a perversely privileged form of self-annihilation and, in Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), we are confronted with a monstrous representation of our plausible capabilities.
The Wolf of Wall Street is not so much the story of penny stock trader Belfort’s rise to prominence through shady financial dealings as it is a gaudy chronicle of the sensory experience. The length is the key; Scorsese’s combustible, carnal filmmaking confronts the audience with the seemingly infinite horrors of rampant hedonism for three whole hours. It’s one big upper that you stumble through in a nauseated daze, equally stunned and exhausted by a master director’s unrivalled ability to make audiences convulse through the muscular physicality of his cinema. Jordan and his friends, including trusted consigliere Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and his father, Max (This Is Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner), are the celluloid gangsters of the 21st century, going all the way back to Edward G. Robinson.
Speaking of Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1931), Scorsese has said, “That world was attractive because of its irresponsibility; and that was disturbing”. The statement is short, but it reveals everything you need to know about The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s not interested in exposing financial scandal or industrial malfeasance; leave that to the journalists. Scorsese is an artist following narratives of human behaviour. The employees of Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, form an isolated, self-made community of sociopaths whose very essence is an affront to the establishment and to society at large; the director casts them as American cinematic outlaws. It’s a small jump from James Cagney’s Tom Powers and Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance to DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort.
On its release, there was much critical carping about the film’s lack of clear-cut condemnation. Are we living under a revived Production Code? To deny cinema its moral ambiguities is to limit is scope as an art form. Writing about Nabokov’s Lolita, literary critic Craig Raine said that great artists create out of “division, uncertainties, borderlines, complication rather than moral wall-charts and charge-sheets of crude common law”. It’s exactly what Scorsese does with The Wolf of Wall Street. After the marathon rouges gallery; the director finally slows down in the final scene and evokes King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) to hold a mirror to its audience. It proves a powerful endnote after holding us by the scruff of our necks for three hours. century, their cinematic lineage.
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