Okay, so if you need some kind of disclaimer about the sex, swearing, and drug use that pervades the DiCaprio/Scorsese masterpiece The Wolf of Wall Street, please consult Focus on the Family’s Plugged In Movie Review (if you dare).
Suffice it to say, there are not graphic or profane scenes in this film – the film itself is a graphic and profane scene. It is, in this sense, an experience of the excessive, a revelation of the gratuitous. And how could it not be? If we have any illusions about what happens, or has happened, behind the facade of the financial district or any other elite cultural class, it is the express purpose of this film to repeatedly slap us in the face until we wake up.
That said, the story of Jordan Belfort, a young, ambitious broker who makes his tens of millions swindling the rich with penny stocks and creating tangled webs of insanely profitable illegal deals that we, in the character’s words, “don’t give a shit” about understanding, is an intentional hagiography, not an exercise in perfect realism. But the critical uproar to the tune of gratuitous unreality and thus BAD MOVIE is not just bad criticism – it’s emotions getting the better of people who are supposed to recognize a great, and meaningful, film when they see one. The Wolf of Wall Street is exactly that, precisely because it puts the abuses of the arrogant and powerful on graphic display. In its stylization it is no less real – it is perhaps only more effective at communicating the visceral reality through the explicit and extreme storytelling.
The film is no doubt operatic in its scale and tone. It is an epic. One feels, for about the first 2.25 hours, that they are watching a kind of Braveheart for the wealthy and corrupt: Scorsese wants us to want Belfort to win like he’s a formerly oppressed freedom fighter, a William Wallace of naked ambition and uninhibited consumption enacting the liberation of all the once-broke brokers at his cockamamie firm Stratton Oakmont. The debauchery is made to look insanely fun, and just insane, a visual expression of what it must feel like to imbibe the Quaaludes favored by the main characters – and in similar quantities.
But as the final act unfolds, it becomes clear that however we may have bought into the mad dream of the Wolf (in defiance of our own blinking and cringing and, in my case, looking down at my unlit phone when another naked blonde showed up), it was all a bill of goods not unlike one of Belfort’s penny stocks. To watch this movie is to be had, took, and bamboozled, even though you thought you were in control the whole time. When Jordan, already under house arrest, turns on his wife and, in a coke-fueled rage, slaps and punches her, then grabs his small daughter and tries to drive away with her only to nearly end both their lives, the Quaalude trip abruptly ends.
And we are left looking back at a 3 hour litany of grotesque and destructive sins.
The message of The Wolf of Wall Street matters, and here’s why.
Yes, we are all sinners – but there are wolves. The wolves are not those who merely sin but who have concluded that their right to sin – in the extreme and at the expense of a disproportionate number of victims – is inalienable and untouchable and possibly even just. Wolves are those who abuse power with impunity but still believe, like Jordan did in his final inspirational speech at Stratton, that they are somehow doing enough good for themselves and others to justify all of the bad. Wolves are deceivers, but they do not merely get off on the act of deception – they relish the pleasurable outcome of their deception. Especially if others share in the pleasures, like Stratton Oakmont’s brokers or one of their lucky “charities.” In the sincere, and sincerely twisted, words of DiCaprio’s Belfort, “Being rich makes you a better person.”
The logic of the wolves is not unlike the logic of prosperity preachers (who are often wolves themselves).
Wolves are not to be treated with regard or compassion (much less admiration) – they are to be discerned and avoided and possibly opposed. And if one is a wolf, as Jordan Belfort, both real and exaggerated, most certainly was, then they may only be redeemed if they are first stopped. And even then, it may be too late. Interestingly, Scorsese himself commented on this concerning the real wolves that are lurking in our self-obsessed cultural milieu:
I’m afraid that there is no redemption possible for wolves.
Jesus commented as well:
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
Jesus’s concern here was for his counter-cultural followers in the midst of powers, both secular and religious, that have so deceived the masses as to endanger their very lives. And this deception was not just reserved for the corrupt cultural elites or religious leaders but even the members of one’s own household. The wolves can be lurking there too. The potential for abuse, injustice, and betrayal to a destructive degree can come from people and places you least expect. The way of empire permeates. Self-obsession abounds.
Thus, we must be shrewd even in our humility and kindness. We must be on our guard. And even that may not be enough. Be prepared for what may come. Stand firm.
My favorite scene in the film placed Belfort on his gigantic yacht in a face-off with FBI Agent Denham played perfectly (as always) by Kyle Chandler. The Wolf lays the brilliant groundwork for an underhanded bribe, and Denham follows the ruse, playing along until the bitter end. Then, he brilliantly interrupts the grand deception with nothing less than pure and unflinching justice.
Here is the shrewdness amidst the meekness: to discern and know that the wolves are there in our midst, and despite their friendly overtures and charitable gestures, their ways are always, only, to harm and destroy.
After his release from prison Jordan Belfort, both real and exaggerated, goes on to become a motivational sales coach of sorts, appearing at various conferences and events. Stripped of his power, he is left only with the ability to pitch, and to share that ability with people lustily desiring success. We wonder if the Wolf has really been redeemed.
But it’s hard to know for sure.
Be on your guard.