The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013)

by Christopher B. Barnett

Though never one to shy away from Dionysian excess, Martin Scorsese’s films have often carried moralistic undertones. For example, in Taxi Driver (1976), it is disgust at human degradation that drives Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) to rampage against society. Likewise, Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is not the God-man of orthodox Christianity but, rather, “the saint of blasphemy” — a human, all too human, enemy of religious and political corruption. One would expect, then, that Scorsese’s latest picture, The Wolf of Wall Street, would bear a similar critique. But that is not the case. The film’s ethical message seems to be that there is none.

Of course, it should be pointed out that this is not Scorsese’s story but, rather, that of Jordan Belfort — a New York stockbroker, who founded the brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, in the early 1990s. Through grit, wit, and a vertiginous drug regimen (cocaine to get up, Quaaludes to come down), Belfort turned Stratton Oakmont into the largest off-exchange firm in the country. And yet, in 1998, he was indicted for fraud and money laundering, eventually landing himself in federal prison for swindling roughly 200 million dollars from investors. Here would seem to be the moral edge to the tale, but, for the most part, Scorsese is disinterested in Belfort’s downfall. After all, why pay attention to such a downer (no pun intended) when Belfort’s heyday was so much fun? So, instead, The Wolf of Wall Street features countless scenes of decadence, from in-flight orgies to midget tossing to (above all) drug abuse, including a morbidly comic overdose on Methaqualone. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio — in a strikingly uninhibited performance — Belfort is a man who simply no longer gives a damn about anything but money. As he commands his investment team, “I want you to deal with your problems…by becoming rich!”

This sort of Weltanschauung makes for easy critique, particularly from a Christian point of view. But Scorsese knows that, and he doesn’t care. Here we get an idealized picture of Nietzsche’s will to power, which, if one is being is honest, is as attractive as it is offensive. Thus The Wolf of Wall Street seems to end with the questions: if you could live like this, would you want to? if you could buy whatever you wanted, what would stop you? Such questions cast an indirect light on the possibility of a moral order. Yet, for Scorsese, whether or not one sees anything is entirely up to the viewer.