By William Repass.
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street begins with a simple equation: money is a drug. “Enough of this shit will make you invincible,” enthuses Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), as he leans in to snort a line of coke in extreme close-up, “you’ll be able to conquer the world and eviscerate your enemies.” But make no mistake, he isn’t talking about the cocaine. He’s referring to dead presidents, that other white line—rolled up into so many paper straws. This from a character who makes his introduction by chiding the film in voice over for showing him driving a red Ferrari while receiving a blow-job, as opposed to a white one. Without so much as a cut, the car switches from red to white, rendering Jordan’s omnipresent narration about as reliable as the pot-dealers he will later hire to hawk penny stocks to We the Audience (as the film repeatedly implies). Yes, Jordan, money is a powerful hallucinogen, and yes, because you have a lot of money, you’re clearly free to re-imagine history as you see fit by switching out reality for the ephemera of your coke-addled memory. Thank you for demonstrating. But then from here on out, it’s a three-hour maximalist bacchanal that, from reference to reference, could give Infinite Jest a run for its money.
But for whatever reason, even though the Wolf has garnered “generally positive reviews,” critics can’t seem to reach a consensus, yet, over whether Scorsese condones or execrates Jordan’s execrable behavior. The film is complex, sure, but pretty unambiguous on that score. Jordan is no protagonist; he’s not even an anti-hero, in spite of all the self-made manliness and Citizen Kanery of his office parties, complete with brass bands and hookers. Jordan’s weltanschauung is something out of Nietzsche filtered through Rand, then filtered again through short-term memory loss: wealth = nobility; if you’re not wealthy, you’re lazy, and you deserve to work at McDonald’s, etc; his yacht Naomi is the prototype for a Galtish floating utopia, free from regulation and “petty morality.” The fact that the film is bookended with commercials for Jordan’s enterprises, the fact that we’re otherwise locked inside Jordan’s narcotized perspective the whole way through, does more than merely intimate our willful complicity in his crimes. It forces us to endure an overstimulated barrage of depravity as if we didn’t actually know better. We’re made to feel sick. Still, a lot of people are angry at the film, or delighted with it for all the wrong reasons, instead of what the film is pointing at: parasitical misogynists like Jordan Belfort, who burrow their proboscises in the “fairy dust” of surplus-value and snort up whole mountainsides of the global economy, while we purchase tickets for the privilege of watching them do it as a form of entertainment.
It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could read the film’s most pivotal, visceral sequence as a celebration of anything, let alone a celebration of Jordan Belfort as the personification of free-market capital. After Jordan and his disciple Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) take a fistful each of quaaludes (the infamous “Lemmons”), Jordan skims off—this time in a white Lamborghini, note—to take an emergency call at a country-club payphone. Jordan discovers his phones have been tapped by the FBI just as the über ‘ludes take delayed effect. So now he’s forced to drive back to his estate practically sedated. For several excruciating minutes we watch him navigate on his belly through the country-club, then roll down a flight of stairs to reach his vehicle. Scorsese records this junkie-junket in a series of brief, elliptical shots, yet somehow they seem to last an eternity, what with Jordan variously slumping and flopping and dragging himself along the floor. Eventually he manages to heave his useless body into the vehicle and drive back to his estate, miraculously without a scratch, only to find Donnie—equally loaded—bellowing evidence into the tapped telephone. They wrestle for control of the receiver, fall to the floor tangled in the phone-cord, and paw feebly at each other while screaming gibberish. Donnie hauls himself up onto the dinning room table and greedily stuffs hors d’oeuvre into his mouth. Then, to no-one’s surprise, he begins to choke.
Meanwhile, in the background the television screen shows Popeye cramming a can of spinach to a crescendo of tinny music, boosting his strength the American Way: through overconsumption. Jordan, realizing he won’t be able to help Donnie with a depressed CNS, takes inspiration from the cartoon. He counterattacks the ‘ludes with a vial of coke as a mushroom cloud balloons up in Popeye’s biceps on the TV: a nice bit of surreal montage eluding to the obverse of the US as nuclear superpower—that is, the US as imperial superaddict. The next morning, the police arrest Jordan for a DUI. As it turns out, his drive wasn’t quite so miraculous after all. The car is trashed, even though we saw it in pristine condition a few minutes previously, reechoing Jordan’s unreliable, self-deluded perspective from the beginning of the film. With its unwavering depiction of Jordan’s total abandon, the sequence invokes Gately’s apocalyptic dilaudid binge from Infinite Jest. Like Wallace, Scorsese satirizes a rationale that would solve drugs with more drugs and capitalism with more capital, in an escalating cycle of addiction, a continual displacement of infinite debt. This cannot last, the images seem to say. There’s an even greater crisis just on the horizon. If we watched that and saw Jordan as a role-model, it’d be tantamount to trying heroin because Pulp Fiction made it look fun.
And in case we don’t buy the drug metaphors, Jordan does us the favor of providing a more sober analogy during a scene in which he reinvents his company as “Stratton Oakmont” in order to tempt some real money. “You schnooks will now be targeting the wealthiest 1% of Americans,” he informs his underlings. “We’re talking about whales here. Moby fucking Dicks.” Anachronistic references to the Occupy movement aside, Jordan appeals to a mythic of the utterly unattainable, the Great White Whale of capital fulfillment, the good ol’ American Dream. Throughout the film, Scorcese litters the mise en scéne of Jordan’s offices with stripped-down whaling ships. “Harpoons” abound in relentless phallic imagery (notably the Jet d’Eau, penetrating the skyline of Geneva’s financial heaven, to which ethereal realm Jordan is of course admitted by virtue of his millions). So who’s Captain Ahab in this equation? Jordan Belfort does manage to exude a weird charisma, what with his bellicose speech-making, (half Caesar, half drill-sergeant from Full Metal Jacket), and his chest-pounding rituals, which mass-choreographies of power quickly slide into something downright fascistic…
Then of course there’s the running thematic of voyeurism. Maybe it’s there just because he’s a filmmaker and that’s how filmmakers like to effect self-awareness, but Scorsese puts a troubling spin on it. Take for example the scene in which The Duchess of Bay Ridge (Naomi, Jordan’s trophy-wife and namesake of his yacht), tries to manipulate him in their daughter’s bedroom by refusing sex while also refusing to wear panties about the house. She’s quickly dissuaded by a teddy-bear’s camera-eye, which allows Jordan’s security team a view of the room. This is the paranoiac dark side of Vertov’s kino-eye. Rather than forge a self-conscious cinematic-apparatus by using the technology to offer a purely mechanized perspective, Scorsese exposes the omniscience of a global surveillance apparatus operating in the service of men like Jordan—of particular relevance in the wake of Snowden and the NSA leaks. More than that, he asks us to consider whether we might be their security. But the final scene, which injects some reality with a cameo appearance from the actual Jordan Belfort, is perhaps more disturbing. Scorsese directly implicates us, the viewers, by slowly panning over Jordan’s audience at a sales training conference. Row after row of eager-eyed faces stamped with naivete stare back at us, as us. Are we really so eager, two decades on, to buy everything he has to sell?
William Repass is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
For another take on The Wolf of Wall Street, see what our Review Editor had to say here.