Moral Immorality in The Wolf of Wall Street

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the moral merit of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street. Stylistically similar to Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino but pitched as a black comedy, the film is an epic chronicle of the excess and debauchery that defined life for some at the height of Ameican financial excess in the 1990s. The film unapologetically shows criminals having a grand time while the fun lasts and does so in graphic but comedic terms. By shifting the attention away from victims of white collar crime, the film has been criticized in some circles as a glorification of bad people, a celebration of immorality, an enthralling portrayal of sin that makes the sin itself look enthralling. Is this true?

The majority of Scorsese’s film focuses on the outrageously amoral lifestyle of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker who made millions off stock manipulation, and his associates (the most notable of whom is Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff). Insofar as it firmly fixes its gaze on the characters’ unruly conducts, the film functions as a parade of unethical behavior and grotesque spectacles. Sex, drugs, and acts of degradation abound throughout the film’s three-hour running time.

As a work of cinema, The Wolf of Wall Street is an impressive achievement, even by Scorsese’s intimidating standard. The camera dances/flies fluidly through spaces, the forth wall is broken with direct addresses, and the mise-en-scene dazzles with intricate details. Even the sometimes obvious mismatched cuts feel in keeping with the disorienting rhythm of the protagonist’s unhinged lifestyle.

The cast, led by a fearless DiCaprio, gives uniformly excellent and committed performances. The cinematic tricks on display may not be particularly novel (many have been used by Scorsese himself in films prior), but together they form a rigorous, coherent aesthetic that contributes to the film’s overall power. There’s a kineticism to the filmmaking that makes it thrilling to behold. Now in his fifth decade as a filmmaker, the 71 year-old Scorsese hasn’t mellowed or slowed down one bit.

But cinematic virtues aside, does the film have a moral center, or is it, as its detractors claim, an irresponsible glamorization of criminal behavior? Having now seen the film twice, I firmly believe that The Wolf of Wall Street is a brave and important film, a work of art by a master filmmaker who, despite the controversy often surrounding his works, has always been a serious moralist.

First, the notion that a film should be condemned for merely showing immoral behavior is, I hope, self-evidently problematic. Depiction does not mean endorsement. Great works of art engage with the human condition with honesty and seriousness. This sometimes means taking an unflinching look at the darkest, ugliest part of our existence. The fact that a work of art is about immorality does not make it an instance of immorality.

Scorsese’s film will understandably turn off a good number of people with its graphic depiction of Belfort’s sex and drug-fueled life – use your discretion when deciding whether or not to see the movie – but the fact that some would be affected by merely seeing such things portrayed on screen says nothing about the film’s inherent moral inclination. This is a straightforward enough idea.

The more serious criticism of Wolf focuses on the notion that, with his energetic and deliberately unapologetic approach to the story, and without giving voice to Belfort’s victims, Scorsese fails to keep a proper critical distance from the story and makes immorality look dangerously enticing.

Indeed, the film is entertaining and often thrilling. The story, as told by Belfort, situates us in his mindset and immerses us in his gleefully amoral world so that we would experience it as he did. But that is the point of the film – It seeks to expose the mentality behind outlandishly immoral behavior and to underscore the fact that, far from being repulsive, such behavior holds genuine appeal. A more conventional cautionary tale would be quick to offer moral instruction and shown the characters suffering the consequence of their crimes, or feeling tragically unfulfilled by bad behavior, or learning to transform and somehow redeem themselves. However, by showing awful people having an awfully good time, and by portraying immorality to be precisely as enticing, as fun, and, finally, as absurd as it really is, Scorsese is doing justice to the reality of human depravity.

The film’s last shot (minor spoiler alert) shows a roomful of wide-eyed spectators waiting to receive Belfort’s wisdom on getting rich. The spectators are transfixed. The vicious cycle continues. We feel a mixture of dread, contempt, and compassion, but the way the shot is framed, it could also be a reflection of ourselves. A sorrowful, clear-eyed understanding of the world sits at the heart of this ostensibly comedic film.

As Scorsese recently remarked during an appearance on Charlie Rose, we are all capable of terrible things under the right circumstances. Indeed, no one is immune from the temptation and effect of immorality – not Belfort and his gang of white-collar thugs, not Scorsese himself, and not the audience. The film’s “gleeful” approach is as much an absurdist indictment of despicable human behavior as it is an admission of shared guilt and of our common susceptibility to sin. The unsentimental focus on immorality is precisely what makes it such a moral and spiritually serious work.

As New Yorker’s Richard Brody remarks, what we are shown on screen is ultimately “a unified field of dubious desire, of temptation, evil, and sin.” This is a world that has gone awry, that has been completely consumed by amoral desires. Because no one is innocent, in a crucial sense, everyone is a victim. All have been duped, cheated, tempted, drawn into the fold of moral chaos, and all have fallen short. A stockbroker who buys into a decadent way of life is ultimately as much a victim as the individuals who unwittingly give Belfort their life savings in hopes of getting rich. This is also why the victim-related criticism level against the film does not quite hold; the film’s perspective on what constitutes victimhood is all-encompassing.

There is tremendous power and truth to the film’s depiction of a fallen world that transcends its subject matter, that inspires reflection on our spiritual and existential predicament. Scorsese, a former Catholic seminarian who has spent a lifetime wrestling with the underside of the human condition, has made another bold film that asks us to look at the face of sin and grapple with our human reality with fear and trembling.