The Wolf Of Wall Street (2014)
Martin Scorsese has many strings to his bow. As well as being widely accepted as one of the greatest post-war American directors he is also a highly respected movie scholar, using his influence and prestige to promote the teaching and appreciation of the most commercial of the visual arts around the globe. He is a tireless campaigner for film preservation and has toured the world for decades in his exhausting quest to persuade governments to invest in their celluloid history, and through his own restorative foundation he has issued gleaming new prints of faded masterpieces such as The Red Shoes and The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp, and helped rescue hundreds of other films. His resume is almost peerless, as fifty years of constructing his energetic and occasionally challenging fables has resulted in three inarguable masterpieces – Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Raging Bull – and other pictures as he charmingly calls them which are beloved of cinephiles the world over. But all of this was almost not to be, as a young man growing up in a strict Catholic Italian-American household he once stood at a crossroads in his life, either to embrace his beloved movies or to enter the seminary and join the priesthood, and I think in that light many of his films can be seen as quiet moral dissertations, one of the most powerful examples being his latest movie The Wolf Of Wall Street.
This appropriately excessive three-hour movie is christened with the roar of a $500,000 pearl white Ferrari, of blowing coke into the ass of a $2,000 a night call girl, of hoovering up thunderous rails of prime colombian flake and swiftly turns more degenerate – meet Jordan Belfort (a career best Leonardo DiCaprio) an utterly amoral, wealth obsessed wretch of humanity whose precipitous rise and fall is the films trenchant trajectory. Flashing back to his 1987 arrival at Wall Street Jordan is awarded an entry-level job at an established stock broking firm, and is taken under the wing of Mark Hanna (a loquacious Matthew McConaughey). In one scene the film obliterates every documentary on the intangible casino which is the global stock market made since 2008, as Hanna explains the ruthless theft of investors dreams, of brokers pocketing their bloated commissions whilst keeping the suckers paper rich but chained into the system. The day that Belfort secures his licence to trade chimes with a chilling omen – Black Monday – so barely into months into the job Jordan swiftly finds himself out in the realms of unemployment. Initially excelling in a successive role of selling penny stocks to gullible working class stiffs he pockets an outrageous 50% commission, but even a $72K monthly salary isn’t enough to sate his inexhaustible appetites so he and his cronies set up their own whale hunting operation, with his right hand man Donnie Azoff (Dionysian poster-boy Jonah Hill) at his side they swiftly become the toast of the financial elite whilst their quasi legal operations begin to draw the interest of the regulators…..
There are many pleasures to partake of throughout this excessive, extraordinarily entertaining and seductive film, from exorbitant performances to cinematic design, from social comment to indoctrinating unease. Firstly, it will bring such joy to lovers of film to see one of the greatest directors in the medium’s history absolutely firing on all cylinders, equalling the power and prowess of his highest regarded previous work – I’ve already seen it twice and my appreciation seems certain to deepen as its aboriginal flourishes and delirious sequences are audited and scrutinised. It’s a dangerous films in many ways, in its absolute rejection of spoon-feeding the audience by barking moral judgements, it’s an uncomfortable truth perhaps but hey guess what – getting drunk is fun. Taking drugs is fun. Having sex is fun, but when these appetites are ballooned to grotesque levels of debauchery these practitioners become pathetic creatures, and all the trappings of wealth and prestige cannot hide their repugnant, commerce afflicted souls. Scorsese, screenwriter Terence Winter and a chutzpah cleaved performance from DiCaprio clearly inculcates the audience into this lavish, obscene lifestyle through carefully constructed repetition, but there is clear conscientious purpose to this seduction which becomes abundantly clear in the final phases of the picture, when Jordan’s true character is clearly presented in all its nausea inducing glory. The allegations of misogyny also baffle and astound, yes it’s throughly accurate to state that the only women in this film are vacuous trophy wives and hookers (well, apart for Johnny Lumley’s brief turn as the elegant Aunt of Jordan’s wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) but here’s a curious point – maybe because that’s exactly how these disgusting specimens see women and it represents the total breadth of their interactions with the opposite sex? The assertion by imbeciles like Mark Kermode that the presentation of women is therefore ‘problematic’ so there needs to be a balance is mind-stunningly ridiculous, as it would betray the entire ethos of the film and its apparent failure in treating its audience as adults (both in content, some of the sex and drug taking sequences are like nothing seen in American cinema for a long, long time) would be sacrificed at the altar of some specious notion of respect.
This is turning into a rant isn’t it? Well, what can I say, its been a long time since film reviews actually made me furious but here we are. The ethos and the filmmakers position towards these characters is perfectly obvious in the films last hour when in devastating detail we are shown exactly what pathetic dregs of humanity these pond scum really are, there is no need to show the effects of their crimes upon the investors whom they defrauded as again this would break the cycle of seduction which is so carefully construed, and the final shot of those enraptured faces (I’m remaining vague for spoiler avoidance) is the ultimate statement not only on the crash of 2008 but how exactly nothing has changed in the intervening years as the filthy rich continue to amass depressing wealth whilst the majority of members of our so-called civilisation work in slave like conditions, as these capos of commerce are continually feallted by the political and media class while the genuinely deserving of aid and support are demonized and marginalised.
A-hem. OK, let’s decant from the soapbox and get back to the movie itself shall we? On a second watch there are some intriguing choices, some blipvert inserts and 12 fame insertions, some subtle time lapse arcs and unusual compositions, all embroidered within the traditional arc of a delerious rise and catastrophic fall which naturally brings Goodfellas to mind. Jordan regularly shatters the fourth wall and brings us into his Mephistophelian confidence, his superbly crafted voiceover married with Thelma Schoonmaker’s dexterous editing patterns and jagged continuity cuts, moving effortlessly from gut-punching humor to abject humiliation of junior and female colleagues, a merger of assets which exposes the intrinsic chavinism of the films principal shareholders. The film mixes digital and film stocks and marty’s trademark deloyment of music underscores the purpose of certain scenes, and as you’d expect from this notoriously agile director the camera sharks through the sterile sets with a predatory precision that mirrors the cut of Jordan’s bespoke Armani suits, technique marrying temprement in an exhilirating portfolio of craft and character. The quaalude scene is an instant classic with physical comedy ameliorated with intoxication in a fashion not seen since Fear & Loathing, a $2 million bachelor party drizzled with heaps of cocaine showering the interior of a private jet in imagery worthy of Hogathian (NSFW and spoilers) excess.
Some years ago I read Taxi Driver Executive Producer Julia Philips notorious memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again where she recalled the gasps in preview screenings when Travis Bickle intoned how every night he had to wash the cum-streaks from the back of his car, and there are some truths excavated in this film which are just as challenging and uncomfortable which elevates this to one of Scorsese’s hungriest and angriest works of art since the Nineties. DiCaprio has a a couple of scenes where he is required to raise the morale of his footsoldiers which equal the famous ‘Greed Is Good’ calculus of Wall Street, his charisma beguiling as the twisted ideology tumbles from his lips. The film is a quiet sermon, as if half of Scorsese’s omerta was enshrined in that aforementioned seminary, he quietly exposing some darker depths of the male psyche and by association the structures and symbols of the modern world which spring these biological fathoms, especially when you consider those Vitaliano Pancaldi ties (where do they point?) and those skyscraper phallic testaments to virility which litter the financial centres of the world. So as it my way there is plenty of supplementary material floating around, here is a wonderful interview with Thelma Schoonmaker which she divulges details of the initial four-hour print, and the film community have been going wild for this amusing post screening discussion with Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson (which naturally is spoiler heavy so beware) but the Executive Summary is this – this is a terrific film from one of the worlds great filmmakers, a final piece of a trilogy begun with Goodfellas and continued with Casino, if at the age of 72 he only has a couple more films in him this investment is absolutley critical in this withering criteque of unchecked capitalism;