In anticipation of the 86th Academy Awards on March 2, we present
a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each
of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. (Caveat: spoilers ahead.)
The Wolf of Wall Street
Best Director nominee Martin Scorsese has built his career creating films that explore the extremities of human existence. In films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed, he presents audiences with an up-close and personal look at the seedy underbelly of human existence, and it’s often anyone’s guess as to whether or not his characters will discover their chance for redemption, let alone whether or not they will ultimately take that chance. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese adds another such film to his list of credits. Clocking in at three hours, this film presents an orgiastic, Bacchanalian portrait of life on Wall Street in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yet in watching this film, it was my own subtle transformation that disturbed me more than any of the drug-addled debauchery, the amoral exploitation of others for financial gain or sexual pleasure, or the ceaseless stream of obscenities (though I did find each of these particular elements disturbing in varying degrees). Upon reflection, I have come to see my own transformation as a microcosm for that which takes place in the characters throughout the unfolding of the story. Simply put, the longer I stared into the banality of evil, the less appalled I was by it; the less appalled I was by it, the less I even noticed that it was there at all. I found that, by the film’s conclusion, I had been somewhat desensitized in one particular arena more so than others, and this arena provides the point of departure for a meditation on the nature of evil.
To say that profanity abounds throughout this film would be putting it much more delicately than any line of dialogue you’d ever hear one of the film’s characters utter. The f-word alone is used 506 times (yes, someone counted), setting the record for a U.S. feature film. This tally doesn’t include any other four-letter words, nor does it include any derogatory slurs that would never be acceptable in civilized conversation. Full disclosure: as a film and television connoisseur, I have heard my fair share of profanity, and even used it on occasion, so this salty language was nothing new to my ears. For me, this familiarity made profanity the least of all the evils present throughout this film, and ultimately paved the way for my desensitization to it. Despite this, there remained something in its pervasiveness and its twisted diversity that was, in a word, shocking. The film more than earned its R-rating within the first 5 minutes. For those familiar with other Scorsese films, his pervasive use of profanity is nothing new; however, The Wolf of Wall Street is different in its incorporation of such language. Profanity becomes an emblem of the excess pursued and celebrated by the characters in the film, and of their utter disregard for the wellbeing of others. Jordan Belfort (Best Actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio) is initially shocked by the fact that Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), his first boss and mentor, uses language littered with cursing, and I found myself shocked along with him. But as with any vice, prolonged exposure results in reduced sensitivity, and soon Belfort the student became Belfort the master. In this observation lies the kernel of my own subtle transformation: after three solid hours of hearing nothing but a solid stream of obscenities, I discovered to my surprise that I hardly noticed their presence in the dialogue anymore. I had become desensitized to the profanity that, despite my acquaintance with such language from previous films, had shocked my ears only three hours before. Again, as with any vice, prolonged exposure results in reduced sensitivity, until the presence of evil is not only no longer noticed, but no longer even recognized as evil.
This theme of desensitization holds true for the other vices presented in the film: the characters increase their drug usage to the point of nearly overdosing in order to get the same high they had before; they indulge in increasingly depraved sexual activity to the point of practically assaulting innocent women. Most significantly, they pursue money with all the ferocity of wolves, and as their appetites for wealth grow, so too does their heedlessness of the impact their insatiable greed has on their clients, their families, their friends and colleagues, and even the stock market itself. Appetite becomes passion becomes vice, and as the characters’ depravity grows, their awareness of their depravity diminishes in inverse proportion until they have become completely blinded to it.
In tandem with the theme of desensitization runs the theme that vice begets more vice; evil begets more evil. Two significant moments, each reprised later in the film, demonstrate this clearly. First is the aforementioned interaction between Belfort and his first boss, when Belfort was just starting out as a broker. Over lunch, Hanna scandalizes Belfort by describing the drug use and sexual activity he and other brokers endorse in order to perform at the highest professional level. Belfort seems unsure of these practices, but when Hanna begins beating his chest in rhythm and singing a guttural chant later referred to as the “Money Chant”, Belfort is drawn in (see the end of the trailer above for this moment). By joining Hanna in the chest-beating and the chanting, Belfort begins his official indoctrination into the practices espoused by his mentor, and the circle of evil grows wider. Later, the significance of this moment is brought to light when Belfort and hundreds of his employees are standing in the office, pounding their chests and singing the Money Chant at the top of their lungs. They, too, have been initiated into the doctrine originally preached by Hanna, and drawn into the cycle of evil by the allure of wealth and excess.
The second moment that demonstrates this vicious cycle first takes place when Belfort has gathered his friends with the intention of making them his first salesmen at his fledgling brokerage firm. As they sit around the table, Belfort hands a pen to his friend Brad (Jon Bernthal) and instructs him, “Sell me this pen.” Brad, in turn, tells Belfort to write something on a napkin, to which Belfort replies, “I can’t—I don’t have a pen”, thus demonstrating how to create a false demand when making a sale, and thus beginning the education of his friends into the Machiavellian form of manipulative salesmanship that will enable them to rake in the money by selling unprofitable penny stocks to anonymous and unsuspecting clients. At the film’s conclusion, after having served time in federal prison for securities fraud and money laundering, we see Belfort in Auckland, New Zealand, hosting a seminar that promises to make participants better salespeople. He walks up to a man in the front row, takes a pen from his pocket, and hands it to him, saying, “Sell me this pen.” Dissatisfied with the man’s answer, he moves on to the next person, and the next, and the next, and as the camera pans back, we see an auditorium full of eager would-be millionaires, ready to follow Belfort as faithful disciples so that they, too, can amass an exorbitant amount of wealth for themselves. And the cycle continues.
In the end, it’s not the drug use or the debauchery or even the greed that raise the greatest concerns in The Wolf of Wall Street, although these are certainly causes for concern. Rather, it is the way in which the film convicts us of our own propensities to evil. We see in Jordan Belfort the result of desensitization to and perpetration of the cycle of evil, yet we also realize that we, too, participate in both of these realities, albeit to (hopefully) much lesser degrees. In this way, the film serves as a kind of mirror, such that our tendencies toward excess and vice are revealed to us by our assessment of their presence in others. In gaging our own reactions to the depictions of such evils, we are challenged to ask ourselves why (or if) we are disturbed by them, so that we can then ascertain our own relationship to them. Ultimately, The Wolf of Wall Street has the potential to teach us more about the shadow sides of ourselves than of the characters it portrays, and perhaps this is why it has disturbed so many viewers.