Nothing I will write here will be better than what Reel Spirituality Co-Director Eugene Suen as already written for our site about The Wolf of Wall Street. The film is indeed an explicit, hilarious, expertly crafted satire about greed, the immorality it leads to, the attractiveness of that immorality, and the ways that greed is at the heart of American society.
In my opinion, it’s the best film of the year, and the one most worthy of both cinematic and theological consideration. Furthermore, if Martin Scorsese is one of the finest American filmmakers of all time – I think he is – and if The Wolf of Wall Street is one of his finest films – I believe it is – then The Wolf of Wall Street is among the best American films of all time. It is a masterpiece made by a man who has spent his life studying the language of cinema and the effects of sin on the human heart. I am in awe of this film.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a film for mature audiences, because of its content, yes, but more so because of its tone which is established by its cinematic style. The two – content and tone – work in concert with one another. This is a film for people who are adept at understanding how films work, what depiction means in accord with narrative and style, and who are prepared to see and hear very explicit and immoral things and to consider what their places are within the framework of the cinematic narrative. Maturity is more a product of experience and practice than it is of age. A lack of experience and practice in a certain area is nothing to be ashamed of. Know your limits. Stretch them gently as you see fit. Be graceful with others whose limits are different than yours.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a satire about greed and the way it dehumanizes. Immature viewers (once again, I don’t mean immature in the derogatory sense, just in the descriptive) might see what Scorsese depicts as a celebration of debauchery. The film hyperbolizes excess and shows it being without apparent consequence in our society. There is truth in that, but only if, like the immature characters, one is only able to see the surface, material level of reality. Though they live large and get away with it, their greed morphs these men and women into inhuman monsters, it destroys their relationships, and it hazards their souls. The characters never see it, because they are already forfeit to greed’s game. They lose themselves, and we, dear moviegoers, are susceptible to the same slippery slope if we let ambition and avarice get the better of us.
On a recent episode of Mad Men (another modern, period tale about greed and its hazards), Don Draper opines that satire is the most threatening form of humor. He’s right, because satire asks its audience to see themselves in despicable (at worst) and pitiable (at best) characters. If you are not willing to let Martin Scorsese question you about the ways in which you are greedy and the ways your greed corrupts your life, you would be better off avoiding The Wolf of Wall Street. You have to laugh at these characters, and you have to be troubled by them at the same time, just as you have to be troubled by your own sin and realize its ridiculousness if you’re ever going to be free of it.
The only thing missing from Scorsese’s film, teleologically, is a remedy for greed’s corrupting influence. There is a running gag in the movie in which the protagonist, Jordan Belfort (a never-been-better Leonardo DiCaprio), will narrate how he accomplished some feat of stock market manipulation. The audience sits with bated breath hoping to glean some nugget of investing knowledge from this very successful man, but just as he gets to the essential part of his process, he ellipses, saying something like, “… but you don’t care about that.”
In fact, we do, because we’re just as greedy as he is, and we’re all always eager for any little bit of knowledge that might give us the leg up in amassing the fortune suggested to us by our later day version of the American Dream. The entire film is like this. It takes us up to a point, and then cuts off, leaving the audience without resolution. There is no remedy here, only diagnosis and the created desire for something better.
But that’s where we come in, friend Christians. We bring remedy to the world. The Wolf of Wall Street has created the need. The Church is the closer. We already know that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” 1 Timothy 6:6-19 should be on our minds as we laugh at Scorsese’s satire and on our tongues as we leave the theater. The antidote to greed is contentment with what we have and trust that God, our Father, is going to continue to provide for us. Citizens of Christ’s Kingdom should invest in that Kingdom by doing the good work of loving others, a lasting investment into true life, instead of buying into America’s Kingdom of rising and falling stock markets, the mirage manipulated by men like Belfort. If Belfort’s world is the only world, by all means, buy in, but if there’s something better, invest there.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a work of profound cinematic and moralistic confidence. May we also be as confident in the work we’re doing to love the world as God first loved it. May we be as confident in our faith as Paul was when he wrote this to Timothy:
The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal.
But as for you, man of God, run away from all these things. Instead, pursue righteousness, holy living, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness. Compete in the good fight of faith. Grab hold of eternal life – you were called to it, and you made a good confession of it in the presence of many witnesses. I command you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and Christ Jesus, who made the good confession when testifying before Pontius Pilate. Obey this order without fault or failure until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ. The timing of this appearance is revealed by God alone, who is the blessed and only master, the King of kings and Lord of lords. He alone has immortality and lives in light that no one can come near. No human being has ever seen or is able to see him. Honor and eternal power belong to him. Amen. (1 Timothy 6:10-16, CEB)
And remember, Paul’s words were words of warning to Timothy so that he succumb to the temptation of wealth and lose the good of the Gospel. Paul knew that Timothy would be tempted, and he wanted him to hold fast to the truth. Wealth is attractive. Debauchery looks fun, but it is a trap that can cost you your soul. The Wolf of Wall Street knows this. The Wolf of Wall Street shows this. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most hilarious and harrowing depictions of the terrible temptation of excess I have ever seen. If your eyes are mature enough to see it, see it, and be better for it.