First published here.
Leonardo DiCaprio is The Wolf of Wall Street’s brash, frenzied centre, the generator of its deadening, relentless storm of light and heat and noise as he attempts to turn his character—stock market fraudster Jordan Belfort—inside-out in fruitless search of something worth pursuing onscreen for three hours. But despite all of DiCaprio’s desperate clamour, there is another, more arresting actor who, in a quiet, under-utilised role, holds the key to Scorsese’s latest in his series of movies about American organised crime and fraud, a series that takes in Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Departed (2006).
Anyone who’s seen the television series Friday Night Lights (2006-2011) should understand that Kyle Chandler is an actor of considerable power. And although as FBI agent Patrick Denham he isn’t given a great deal to do in a fairly marginal role, Denham’s meeting with Belfort aboard the latter’s 170-foot yacht gives The Wolf of Wall Street most of its few moments of effective drama, as the two men try to take each other’s measure, slowly stripping back or cutting through their respective façades until they hit raw, exposed nerves.
Chandler’s talent in his brief appearances throughout the movie is to somehow convey Denham as a man who lives within the hard, austere shell of FBI power (which, one critic has suggested, equates him with Belfort), but who nevertheless projects from within a simmering need to be part of something larger than himself. It’s something like Denham’s (perhaps unconscious) desire to connect his FBI investigation of stock manipulation to his everyday commute on the subway, a routine Belfort mocks and Scorsese depicts (rightly) in an ambivalent image of being both alienated from, but in common with, strangers. What Chandler evokes, in other words, is an attempt to commit oneself to the difficult work of being part of a shared public world, the community of which is partly built by that very commitment.
In conjuring such a capacious interiority without defining its limits, Chandler as Denham exercises a far stronger grip on the imagination than DiCaprio’s total evacuation of Belfort’s inner self (a shallow, quickly drained swamp) possibly can. This then raises the question: why is Scorsese so fascinated by Belfort, and what is the meaning of the form that fascination takes, as a repetition of his long-held obsession with a certain type of American criminal? So it’s as an alternative point of focus that Chandler’s presence holds the key to The Wolf of Wall Street, prompting us to question where, how, and why Scorsese chooses to invest his energies as a director. It is, sadly, a choice that results in this movie’s awful failure, which is of such magnitude that, like a harsh critical awakening, it’s shaken my positive judgement of both Goodfellas andCasino, movies I once strongly admired, movies with which The Wolf of Wall Street makes gestures of kinship.
Scorsese begins Belfort’s story by interrupting with a freeze-frame his depiction of a dwarf-tossing competition Belfort has arranged. Scorsese’s seizure of the image allows Belfort’s voiceover to take charge, in the same way the comically unexpected stabbing that opens Goodfellas is interrupted so that Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill can tell us: “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” Is Scorsese’s point in linking the two men and their stories in this way that stock market manipulators and fraudsters like Belfort are nothing but gangsters with trading licences?
There’s definitely a resonance, in that both types of men enrich themselves by stealing from others, and impoverishing society at large as a result. But if that is what Scorsese means, then the meaning is a minor one, and blunt. So why, then, does he make such a massive investment in Belfort’s tale, and ask the same of us? The size of the investment he makes is clear in the movie’s massive incarnation of excess in all dimensions, above all in its desperate need for a kind of energy that can somehow be constantly released without at all dissipating. The investment it demands from us is to be found in the way Scorsese, and his character, Belfort, seek constantly to recruit us to the structures of the movie’s attempts at comedy, which seek our assent to Belfort’s view of things. This is nowhere clearer than the scene in which Belfort allows his wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) to be the subject of a humiliating sexual exposure on camera.
Maybe, though, as I’ve heard it suggested, all of the movie’s relentless frat-boy shenanigans and more depraved immoralities are its own clever little fraud, a ploy to reveal our weakly veiled desire to partake and invest in a worldview like Belfort’s, only for the payoff to leave us empty-handed, exposed to our own hypocrisy, our superiority now shattered on the rocks of susceptibility to the promise of untrammelled greed and power that Belfort represents. From this view, the scene during Belfort’s unravelling in which he punches Naomi in the stomach is Scorsese’s empty return on our preparedness to be ‘in on the joke’ of the earlier scene in which Belfort allows Naomi to unwittingly masturbate in full view of a security camera being monitored by his hired thugs. But in comparison to, say, Michael shockingly striking Diane Keaton in The Godfather, Part Two (Francis Ford Coppola 1974), this attack of a husband on his wife feels like Scorsese extending Belfort’s own instrumentalisation of the women in the movie’s world—about whom there seems no attempt to know anything. Naomi, and Margot Robbie, both seem present so they can be used merely as props around which to amp up Belford’s unrestrained depravity.
The idea that The Wolf of Wall Street carries a sophisticated ‘trap’ for its audience who glory in Belfort’s exploits might find its strongest evidence in the final scene, in which Belfort begins to give one of his sales psychology seminars to an audience of hopefuls assembled in an Auckland hotel conference room. The movie’s last shot is from Belfort’s point of view, and shows a room of slack-jawed acolytes, hanging in suspense for the words from Belfort’s mouth that will unlock their capacity to talk and walk and live like he does. As Richard Brody writes in his second piece of advocacy for the movie, “The shot shows not just an audience, but the audience: Scorsese puts the film’s viewers face to face with themselves, charges us with compensating for our lack of imagination and fatal ambition through contact with the wiles of a master manipulator.”
Is Scorsese’s point throughout The Wolf of Wall Street that we all, at heart, lust after men like Belfort, or at least after the image of a life lived like the one Scorsese realises onscreen? Precisely replicating the contemptuous logic of Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Richard Brody thinks so: “Scorsese, in depicting with great exuberance a sinner who, for his part, also describes his sins exuberantly, brings to light the mighty unconscious of humanity. The difference between Belfort and his victims—and between the fictionalised Belfort and his victims—is that he does what we would do but don’t, he says what we think and feel but suppress.” We of course can’t hold a filmmaker responsible for his critics, but if this kind of impoverished moral imagination is truly what Scorsese finds at the bottom of the lives of American crime and fraud he depicts here (and it seems the most likely defence of how he depicts them), then he illuminates little, shining only a cynical, juvenile, and facile light, one too weak to cut very far into anything like the inner depths of the human soul.
The charge supposedly levelled by the final shot, one that can be found elsewhere in the movie, is a weak one that fails to stick, the shot instead backfiring, becoming not a mirror of the audience in front of the screen but a projection and indictment of the sadly diminished man behind the camera. It should be our consolation, then, that The Wolf of Wall Street has arrived at the same time as David O. Russell’s movie about fraud, crime, and FBI investigation, American Hustle, the rich fullness and generosity of which can more than compensate us for Wall Street’s desiccation of human spirit.