Martin Scorsese's astonishingly energetic, experimental, foul-mouthed and wickedly entertaining new black comedy The Wolf of Wall Street has caused a huge furore. It's alleged that the movie takes just too much pleasure in the bad behaviour and excess of Jordan Belfort and his minions at the dodgy Long Island brokering firm "Stratton Oakmont", not condemning them enough, nor showing them being punished - or sufficiently representing their victims.
But why the shock? Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) dramatised dark, violent impulses in alienated, scary anti-heroes. Scorsese's great 1990 film, GoodFellas, adopted a quasi-anthropological approach to the life of the mobster - trying to show criminality as everyday business for "wise guys" - and demonstrated the shocking appeal, and the dark comedy, of violent illegality.
Though that film provoked similar qualms, the crime-movie genre made it more digestible - whereas The Wolf of Wall Street offers a three-hour immersion in full-frontal financial skulduggery, sexual licentiousness, drug addiction and general moral turpitude. The film is dazzling and innovative, yet it recognisably carries forward the project of the ambivalent biopic Scorsese has pursued since Raging Bull searingly made us see the world of the boxer Jake LaMotta from the inside in all its profanity, brutality and beauty.
GoodFellas and The Aviator (2004), his Howard Hughes biopic also starring DiCaprio, have equally taken dubious characters, driven embodiments of capitalist acquisition, and imagined the texture of their experience in extravagant, often rebarbative - but exhilarating - ways. WoWS may be closest to his Las Vegas epic Casino (1995), which also told the story of what one character called a "golden Jew" with a genius for illegal moneymaking - Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro), whose grasp of gambling ("It's all been arranged for us to get your cash," he tells us in voice-over) enabled the Mafia to make millions from an efficient "skim".
Scorsese said about GoodFellas that he wanted "to make people angry about the state of things, about organised crime, and how and why it works". Insofar as WoWS is about "organised crime" - Belfort smilingly assures us that his schemes are "Absolutely not!" legal - we needn't imagine a different purpose at work here. The film is a biopic based on the brash, manipulative, self-glamorising Belfort's extremely readable 2007 memoir of the same title, and the real Belfort, after a short prison term, has emerged, not very penitent, to a lucrative career in motivational speaking. This relative impunity is part of Scorsese's point. One way of looking at this film and Scorsese's other biographical stories of emblematic but questionable innovators in the modern world - notably Rothstein in Casino and Howard Hughes (DiCaprio) in The Aviator - is that they're our equivalent of Shakespeare's historical plays and tragedies, representative stories of great men and their downfall, showing us how the world works.
Thus the Machiavellian Belfort, an anti-hero of late-capitalist finance selling the lure of wealth as an alchemical panacea ("Deal with your problems by becoming rich!", he urges), may be our equivalent of Richard III or Iago - who also charm us and disable our moral instincts by taking us into the confidence of their villainous schemes. Rothstein - the Merchant of Vegas? - has much in common with Shylock, despised by his Italian associates as a Jew, yet tolerated because of his financial convenience - and finally impelled to self-destruction by an inconsistent human passion for family. Perhaps the damaged and driven yet heroic Hughes that Scorsese and DiCaprio showed us resembles Coriolanus - a mother-haunted figure of immense power whose uncontrollable personal demons shape our fate.
At the end of The Aviator, in fact, Hughes's neuroses consume him, and he breaks down while predicting the jet-infested skies of today: repeating compulsively "the way of the future… the way of the future". Scorsese said in an interview this "implies his future, implies the future of our country, it implies the future of the world, really". An individual's emotional disturbance reflects on that of a sick culture.
"There's a lot that goes on in the story that has to do with accumulation, greed, how much is enough, enough is never enough." All this could be said in spades about WoWS. In terms of film history, this kind of movie, which might be called psychological capitalist epic, in which the intimate flaws and obsessions of dynamic, charismatic characters of huge wealth and influence transform and disfigure the world around them, also clearly enough goes back at least to Citizen Kane (1941 - also Shakespearean in conception).
More recent examples would include Polanski's Chinatown (1974) about water, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2008) about oil, David Fincher's The Social Network (2010) about social media, maybe Bennett Miller's Moneyball (2011) about baseball.
Scorsese's new masterpiece could also be seen as harking back further - as an inspired modern variant on The Great Gatsby, much more successful and richly suggestive than Baz Luhrmann's 2013 adaptation - also starring DiCaprio. Belfort at one point wears a pink suit - like Fitzgerald's Gatsby - and is equally an interloper in wealthy WASP Long Island; though "Wolfie", as his adoring minions hail him, is more like Gatsby's sinister associate Wolfsheim - in his book he writes of "savage Jews like myself, who'd made fortunes on Wall Street and were willing to spend whatever it took to live where Gatsby lived".
The conspicuous consumption on display in Gatsby recurs here - mansions, pools, yachts, fast cars, mistresses. Belfort in the movie calls it "the Gold Coast of Long Island… heaven on earth" - echoing Rothstein in Casino: "I was given Paradise on Earth." But as in Gatsby, it's a fool's paradise, built on sand. Because the addiction of Belfort and his misfit brokers to drugs and sex in the film is secondary to a greater addiction. Near the start, Belfort lists his drug habits; but when apparently talking about cocaine - "Enough of this s---'ll make you invincible" - he actually means the rolled $100 bill he snorts the cocaine with: another, more powerful, drug. His depraved Wall Street mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) tells him early on that their stock-buying clients are "f---ing addicted". But so are the brokers - to profit. The victims we mainly see in WoWS are Belfort and his beguiled, fallen Strattonites: confidence men who lie to themselves first, and only secondarily to their gulls. Their own greed is fed by the greed they create or exacerbate in others, in a fallen world where everything and everyone has a price.
Belfort is scared when he goes to jail, but only briefly, because "I'd forgotten I lived in a place where everything was for sale". In one of Belfort's rabble-rousing speeches he proclaims "This is Ellis Island, people… Stratton Oakmont is America." But this is globalised capitalism, sans frontieres. Two days later federal subpoenas arrive and his henchman Donnie bins a subpoena and pees on it in front of the crew, leading a chant of "F--- you, USA!" Anxiety, emptiness and despair amid the rampage of group hysteria are visible throughout, and at his low point, facing trial, high on cocaine, having punched his wife, kidnapped his little girl and crashed his car, there's a moment of half-realisation where blood suddenly runs down Belfort's face, and he seems humanly vulnerable, a victim of his own destructive urges - like the bloody Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. When I met Scorsese some years ago, he mentioned he was reading through Herman Melville. He knows very well, then, the implications of another great speech by Belfort - in which he declares that the next clients to be targeted - the rich - are "Moby Dicks", and that "I'm gonna teach every one of you to be Captain F---ing Ahab!" It's a deep joke: Belfort, an obsessed, crippled commander, is leading his ill-assorted crew - and their victims - on a doomed voyage, a mad, self-defeating quest for an impossible, inscrutable object. Moby Dick - the great American novel - is the ultimate allegory of Western man's urge to domination - and of his inevitable failure.
The Wolf of Wall Street - a great American movie - is a tragic satire with a serious purpose, on a subject as great as Melville's white whale: money.