It’s difficult for many of us to be unbiased when it comes to Martin Scorsese. Very likely he could direct a remake of When Harry Met Sally and I’d think it was the greatest thing since Taxi Driver. But even given all of that bias, and all the ways I love The Wolf of Wall Street (my favorite film of the year) it’s still hard to put into words why he’s just the best director working today and why he shines so brightly with The Wolf of Wall Street, his fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Wolf came late into the season. There wasn’t a way to push the other films aside to find a place on the bench but when you’re Scorsese and DiCaprio, that spot was already being held for you — all you had to do was match expectations. This film did and it didn’t. Artistically, it is without compare. The subject matter caused more than a few ripples in the filmgoing community and probably still gives people complicated feelings about what they’re seeing on film. The charming, humble and likable DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort lassoing the American dream, complete with sociopathic greed, with no regard whatsoever for his victims.
To accept this indictment of American culture is to be complicit in the dirty game. That world is us. We are that world. We are that world every day, every time we buy something from Walmart or buy a lottery ticket. Walking the aisles of Walmart I flashed on that subway scene in The Wolf of Wall Street where Kyle Chandler is looking around at ordinary, working class America going about its business, buying the dream like a drug. We’re chumps. Buying goods made in China cheap. Not investing in our future but making a few obscenely rich people even richer.
If John Steinbeck is right about us — that we see ourselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires in a slump, waiting to right our course — then The Wolf of Wall Street tricks us once again, like a wolf would do, into believing that we should want that. We should want the beautiful wife, the yacht, the drugs and sex. We should want to toss $100 bills at people we don’t like — fun money that doesn’t even have as much value as toilet paper. Scorsese goes painfully, irreversibly deep.
As a director Scorsese hasn’t slowed down. He is every bit the attack dog he’s always been. Helped greatly by his partner in crime Thelma Schoonmaker to splatter the big screen with primary colors — cadmium orange, cobalt blue, vermillion — thick strokes, unpredictable rhythms caught in a tangled web of beauty, greed, wanting, dissatisfaction. The film is filled with memorable shots — like the one with the watch traveling slo-mo through the air to the beat, beat, beat… Belfort’s naked body cruising among the debris from the bachelor party the night before, looking out the picture window.
Never missing even a half-beat, we are held by Martin Scorsese’s remarkably capable hands that pick us up for a journey and deposit us three hours later at a new perspective — hours that feel like seconds, so fast does this thing move. Scorsese is one of the few directors who has been dazzling audiences since the 1970s and continues to do that without giving us too much to figure out all at once. He parses information, cuts scenes abruptly, lingers on long conversations long enough to sort thing out on our own without being spoon fed the usual cues.
If we can’t face slavery, it’s equally difficult to face the financial ruin that Wall Street scoundrels, the 1% and people like Jordan Belfort left us with. Scorsese depicts this evil world with a wide grin, rubbing his palms together and saying, see, let me show you what they and that world are REALLY like. It’s a juicy, honest high resolution image of one of the ugliest parts of our empire.
The film is build on a speed up/slow down motion. Scorsese wanted his usual rapid-fire editing (Thelma) and then for everything to stop for a long conversation, like the one between Matthew McConaughey and DiCaprio. Or Jonah Hill explaining his convoluted marriage. Or that great bit with Jean DuJardin. DiCaprio’s Belfort continues to reveal himself more and more with these scenes, and we are pulled in closer to him each time, forging a deceptively intimate relationship. We like him. We want him to be happy. We want him to have his dreamgirl, his dream job, his car. We even want him to get home when he’s paralyzed with quaaludes.
The brilliance in the hat trick Scorsese pulls off here is that at some point you start to feel uneasy about what you’re watching, whom you’re rooting for and what that says about you. You feel that when you’re watching Rupert Pupkin play kidnapping for laughs, or that date with Travis and Betsy in Taxi Driver. Something is off, Scorsese is toying with your perception of the traditional antihero protagonist. He excels at that with DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Will there be people who don’t feel that way? Sure. We would like our heroes, and our idealism, to be cut and dried, to have film state humanity’s message again and again. But probably those people who mythologize Belfort, who yearn for that life, have, to quote Jack Nicholson in The Shining, a big surprise coming to them.
Scorsese is a master of the craft. He is leagues beyond anyone else. Making a case for him is easy. Betting on him this year to win is near impossible.