Last year's manufactured scandal was the concern over torture in "Zero Dark Thirty." There, a few socially conscious journalists went on the attack, prior to watching it, accusing the film of endorsing torture. This year's scandal involves Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street." This film is accused of celebrating the bankers and brokers who stole from us. But, the answer is the same.
"Zero Dark Thirty" endorses torture if, when watching those scenes, you are not offended. It's that simple. Likewise, "The Wolf of Wall Street" endorses Jordan Belfort's behavior if you admire him. I found the torture in "Zero Dark Thirty" repulsive, for not even a rabid dog should be treated as those suspects were treated. Otherwise, "Zero Dark Thirty" stops short of giving an answer.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is slightly different; something important happens near the end. As the Belfort family dissolved, were you surprised when he punched his wife? Full fist. Full force. Straight into her gut. That scene made a clear point: Belfort is a monster. But, if that shocked the viewer—some people in my screening gasped—then we have to wonder about our feelings toward the three hours of virulent misogyny that preceded it. Hopefully, all that preceded that moment would convince us that he is an animal in a nice suit. He is a wolf, who barks and growls and bites like a wolf.
That instance, however, makes it clear that even Scorsese has his opinions against Belfort. And, that surprised me. It was obvious in that moment it was going to happen: he was about to hit her. I wonder if there was much else that the film could show in abuse of women. But, even when Scorsese pushes the limits of brutality, I do not recall anything from his previous films that…basic. In "Goodfellas" the crazed Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) kills without flinching, beds multiple women, but visits his mother for dinner. In "Gangs of New York," Bill "The Butcher" (Daniel Day Lewis) whips knives at Cameron Diaz, but does he ever punch her? In "Raging Bull" LaMotta (Robert De Niro) tosses furniture, grabs his wife, and still stops.
But, what about the other charge against the film: the absence of the victims? The viewer has the right to criticize art for lacking a moral compass, as much right as the artist has to step on the moral compass and dump it in a polluted river. Likewise, the viewer has the right to protest the lack of consequences, as much right as the artist has to ignore them. There are three problems here.
First, such objections are asking for a whole different movie. "The Wolf of Wall Street" is not seeking to be that movie. It is fair to complain about the absence of victims, in the way we would complain about the glorification of violence in other films that do not show the victims of guns. Part of the raw power of "Fruitvale Station" is that we watched a man get shot, watched the man die, watched him lie alone in death, watched his mother weep for him, and on top of that, we see the actual people portrayed. Here, however, we do not know what happened to all the people who trusted the brokers, but we also do not know what happened to Belfort's first wife, his children, or the family members of any of the other characters. Those stories would make for a completely different film.
Second, such protests are inevitably selective: we often attack the heroes at the very, very top of the economic and social food chains. The loudest grievances against forced labor being used to make sneakers were fired against Michael Jordan and Nike, even though almost all professional athletes at the time were wearing and/or endorsing such shoes. Had a less popular cast and crew made this film, nobody would have complained. It smacks of inconsistency.
Third, this material is par for the Scorsese course. A scan of his filmography reveals a fascination with angels as humans and humans as devils. On the one hand, some of his films show the need for saints to struggle through their mortal worlds, as in "The Last Temptation of Christ" (which was also protested) and "Kundun." More often, we find him exploring the capacity of common men to become monsters. "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas," "Cape Fear," "Bringing Out the Dead," "Gangs of New York," "The Departed," and now "The Wolf of Wall Street." They all feature those male characters who stand erect, while getting bypassed in other aspects of evolution.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" follows the "Goodfellas" story arc, from the first freeze frame introducing the career, through privileges, the parties, the affairs, the courtroom betrayal of the peers, and "legitimate" life on the other side. The difference here is that the genre Scorsese could have chosen was the legal-financial thriller, like "Wall Street," "Margin Call," or "Boiler Room," which would be full of serious men with expensive suits, rolled sleeves, loose ties, and frowns. No, he chose to tell this story as a 1980s Frat Boy Sex Comedy, with booze, drugs, pranks, expensive cars, yachts, clubs, mansions, growling men, and female flesh. And, that too is consistent for Scorsese. With his vast knowledge of and respect for cinema, he too gives esteem to categories we choose to forget. On this last point, I would have walked out of the film in the first thirty minutes—in our era of easily accessible internet pornography I would hope big films would get cleaner—but the filmmaker here is Scorsese. And, whether or not this reflects anything about the real Jordan Belfort, the genre fits the character.
So, does Scorsese endorse Jordan Belfort? It seems clear he regards Belfort as a monster. But, he is the kind of monster we keep staring at. This film offers no sympathy for this devil, as much as it leads us in curiosity about him.