An Unflinching Masterpiece: The Wolf of Wall Street

There’s a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) where stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) makes violent love to his trophy wife (Margot Robbie) on a bed of millions in cash. There’s a scene where Jordan celebrates the end of the workday by parading a half-naked marching band and a procession of strippers across the trading floor. There’s a scene where Jordan looks into camera and explains his money-laundering scheme to the audience, only to stop midstream and say, “But you don’t care about any of this. All you care about is whether we made a shit load of money!” And there’s a scene, many scenes actually, where Jordan and his entourage uses hindered-dollar bills to snort cocaine off of every female body part you can imagine.

The Wolf of Wall Street is not a subtle film. It bombards you with its content. It bludgeons you with its purpose. It’s a blunt, scornful, nasty piece of work, and it wants to be. It’s the type of unflinching masterpiece Martin Scorsese was born to direct.

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The film chronicles the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a real-life stockbroker and white-collar criminal, portrayed here with brilliant intensity and charisma by DiCaprio. When Jordan enters Wall Street in the 1980s he possesses a temperate character and a loving wife. When he leaves in the 1990s, Jordan has been consumed by Wall Street’s culture of greed, drugs and prostitution. He’s struggling to hold his second marriage together. He’s hounded by the FBI. He’s drug addled and doesn’t know whom to trust. If you know Scorsese’s previous films, this plot description will seem very familiar.

The Wolf of Wall Street is obviously the fourth film in Scorsese’s gangster series. The previous three films explored the criminal underworld and its inhabitants at different social levels, from the street-level thugs in Mean Streets (1973) to the middlemen gangsters of Goodfellas (1990) to big-money bosses in Casino (1995). Now Scorsese’s tackles crime at the highest level of money and corruption—the stock market. Once again, Scorsese’s brings his rock-n-roll pace and pop-music soundtrack. Once again, the camera tracks the action with restless intensity. And once again, a main character narrates his journey through an illicit lifestyle, detailing every scheme and twist, every success and excess, while we watch the details fly across the screen, our minds scrambling just to keep up. The experience is pure Scorsese exhilaration.

At the same time, this film introduces new twists on Scorsese’s gangster template. His previous crime films shocked audiences with the gruesome portrayals of gangland violence, but the stockbrokers in The Wolf of Wall Street don’t need guns to rob people of their money. In the place of physical brutality, Scorsese chooses to shock audiences with the emotional cruelty of these men’s lives—the machismo posturing, the constant threats and insults, the bullying and lying, the non-stop streams of vulgarity, the utter dependency on drugs to function, and the addiction to sex. The drug use and the sexual content are especially graphic in the film—its easy to understand Scorsese’s struggles to not receive an NC-17 rating—and yet their treatment doesn’t feel exploitative. It feels overwhelming and soul numbing. It feels desperate and wretched, like inner-turmoil and addiction granted visual form. And, of course, these issues provide great drama. One of the film’s most bravado sequences finds Jordan under a huge time pressure to get home while fighting the effects of an overdose of Quaaludes. This sequence acts as a direct echo to Scorsese’s famed cocaine-paranoia sequence in Goodfellas, but this time with the action slowed to a nerve-wracking crawl.

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Another key difference between The Wolf of Wall Street and Scorsese’s previous work is the decidedly colder, even comedic, attitude towards the characters. While Scorsese never went easy on gangsters in the past, never pardoned their crimes or overlooked their victims, you did sense empathy from the director. He understood these people, grew up in similar neighborhoods, idolized them as a child looking out the window, and now as an adult mourned for their lost souls. You do not, however, sense empathy in the film for Jordan Belfort, or his kind. There is no true understanding, and how could there be? Their wealth is absurd and their appetites grotesque, and the extremes of their lives make sense only to them. Even the concept of family, that idol so weirdly worshiped by mobsters, seems irrelevant to these master of the universe. The stockbrokers in The Wolf of Wall Street are like “goodfella” gangsters without the heart, and the outsider can only look on with wonder and disbelief. While Scorsese tracks their money-obsessed lives with an historian’s eye, he visualizes them with a jester’s scorn. The results are both gripping and often hilarious.

The performances also play a key part in the film’s success. Scorsese always gets the best out of DiCaprio, but in this fifth collaboration together the actor delivers a possible career high. Dicaprio’s portrayal of Jordan Belfort is a high-wire act of brilliant intensity and tragic charisma. As the film sprints frantically through its 3-hour running time, DiCaprio’s role offers the film a secure center, a master of ceremonies that keeps the film from ever feeling daunting. Surrounding this center is a remarkable supporting cast. In particular, Jonah Hill delivers another terrific performance as Belfort’s unlikely best friend Donnie Azoff, a character with both attractive sincerity and shocking impulse problems. Newcomer Margot Robbie also does stellar work as Naomi, Belfort’s second wife, a role that could have easily been beautiful decoration but which Robbie infuses with real intelligence and a tough interior. Matthew McConaughey also keeps his recent winning streak alive with a few scene stealing moments as Belfort early mentor. As with the world of Wall Street, all these characters are made up of fascinating details and the film devotes generous time to exploring them.

In the end, The Wolf of Wall Street is all about the details, and this is where its brilliance resides. Like much of Scorsese’s work, the film is more of a visual essay than a straight narrative. The director would rather pause the action for analysis or leave the action for an interesting tangent or abandon the action to discuss a new character than ever follow a conventional plot. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter use first person narration to great effect here, with Jordan explaining nearly every detail of his life—from his exploitation of penny stocks to character back stories to the history of Quaaludes to his theories on the differing quality of prostitutes. The film is obsessed with the stories behind the stories, with the meanings the behind the facades. While this essayist streak has weighed down some Scorsese films (Gangs of New York) or been breathtaking but inconsistent in others (Mean Streets, Casino), The Wolf of Wall Street achieves a unique harmony of story and analysis. It’s possibly Scorsese’s most complete visual essay yet.

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