It all begins in a bloody bathroom. A young man shaves at a mirror, his body arched over a porcelain sink. With each new stroke, a torrent of blood gushes down his cheeks, streaking across the tiles in a crimson cascade. A romantic ballad floats over the soundtrack and the young man’s gaze is as placid as the singer’s voice. He slits his throat without a sound.
The Big Shave is the 1968 student film that launched Martin Scorsese’s career. It is also the foundational text for understanding his cinematic universe, the raw material from which he would fashion the self-destructive heroes of Raging Bull (1980), Taxi Driver (1976) and the new Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Scorsese’s best cinema teeters on a razor’s edge between violence and comedy, romance and repulsion. He dazzles the senses and troubles the conscience, using pitch-perfect pop songs to regulate the temperature and texture of his scenes. In six beautifully calibrated minutes, The Big Shave introduces Scorsese as one of the great talents in American movies, a master manipulator of mood and tone.
Scorsese’s latest film also tells the story of a man who can’t stop hurting himself. As Jordan Belfort builds a successful brokerage firm, embezzles millions of dollars, and tangles with the dour-faced choirboys of the FBI, he exhibits a prodigious capacity for self-abuse. An army of yes-men plies him with pills and booze. A surplus of coke and call-girls prompts the collapse of his marital stock. And countless know-nothings and schmucks hand over their hard-earned cash, enabling the greed that is his ultimate downfall.
The trouble with Jordan – and, ultimately, with Wolf of Wall Street – is that he’s oblivious to the wreckage smoldering in his wake. This is a satire with no bite; a rise- and-fall story in which the fall feels like an afterthought. It’s only after two-and-a-half hours of relentless debauchery – and an actual fiery wreckage – that Jordan makes a half- hearted stab at self-improvement. Scorsese takes such voyeuristic pleasure in his hero’s high-flying lifestyle that he loses sight of the damage Jordan has inflicted on his family, on his co-workers, and on the entire system of capitalist enterprise.
This lust for excess is nothing new. Scorsese has always reveled in the kinetic properties of sex, violence and conspicuous consumption, seizing every opportunity to brand our retinas with his authorial imprint. What’s disheartening about his recent films, and Wolf of Wall Street in particular, is the absence of any narrative ballast to offset this aesthetic grandeur. He’s lost sight of the empty spaces in his characters’ lives, the moments of quiet contemplation that added texture and nuance to Mean Streets (1973) and Raging Bull, Kundun (1997) and The King of Comedy (1982). In Wolf of Wall Street, he lets spectacular set pieces pile up in such rapid succession that they gradually lose their impact, dulling our senses as surely as the Quaaludes that Jordan guzzles by the handful. For all its eye-popping pleasures, the film represents a wild departure from the audacious ambiguity of the Big Shave blueprint. After five decades of tiptoeing along the razor’s edge, Martin Scorsese has lost his balance.
It’s been said that old directors never die; they simply become photographers. Despite the new subject matter the film explores, Wolf of Wall Street is a crisp snapshot of Scorsese’s recent tendencies as a filmmaker. In films like Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010), Scorsese has worked with large budgets, a bankable movie star (DiCaprio) and the creative freedom to make films that run well over two hours. He has become the Norman Mailer of the American cinema: a one-time prodigy whose ambitions are so vast, and so ferocious, that he now works exclusively in an epic mode of storytelling. And like Mailer in the final decades of his career, Scorsese has occasionally struggled to balance the spectacular properties of his material with an intimate rendering of his protagonists’ lives.
Jordan Belfort makes for a lively wingman amid the bacchanalia of 90s Wall Street, but he’s also a bit of a cipher. When Jordan breaks the fourth wall, letting us in on the secrets of his trade, he offers descriptions rather than reflections; there’s none of the tortured soul-searching that was once the hallmark of a Scorsese hero. Scorsese tries to brand Jordan as a kind of Horatio Alger figure, hustling to get a slice of the American pie, but this reduces his hero to a paint-by-numbers cliché. Crashing your helicopter into your lawn is not the logical outcome of every working-class childhood in Queens.
Despite the blurry character study at the center of the film, there are still delightful touches at the margins of the frame. There’s a picture-perfect graininess to the 90s-era infomercial that precedes Jordan’s arrest by the FBI. There’s an impeccable, All- American blandness to the actors who fill out the supporting cast, from the hapless captain of Jordan’s yacht to the government lawyers who read him the riot act. For all the flaws of Scorsese’s recent work, he continues to craft his cinematic settings with an anthropological precision. He hasn’t simply become a photographer.
Wolf of Wall Street is also surprisingly funny. The film’s scenes of boys being boys drag on too long, and exemplify the misogyny that has haunted Scorsese’s career, but they also display the comedic chops that he’s been sharpening ever since The Big Shave. There’s a newfound lift to DiCaprio’s bro-downs with Jonah Hill, Spike Jonze and the increasingly ubiquitous, reliably badass Matthew McConaughey. This loose-limbed jauntiness has been absent from Scorsese’s recent films. Like Jordan in the early stages of his career, jumping from job to job in the pursuit of a million-dollar salary, Scorsese continues to demonstrate a remarkable and razor-sharp gift for reinvention, even if it sometimes makes a bloody mess.
The Big Shave had an alternate title when it was first released: “Viet ’67.” This clumsy bid for political symbolism is the only evidence to suggest that the film’s buoyant bloodbath is the work of a student filmmaker. It’s also an anomaly within Scorsese’s five-decade career. In contrast to Norman Mailer, whose life and work were often political to a fault, Scorsese has never been a politically engaged artist. In his 40-plus shorts, features and documentaries, you rarely get a sense of where he stands on the major issues of the day.
Avoiding political grandstanding has always been one of his great strengths as a filmmaker. Few other American artists have so vividly portrayed the lives of people who build their systems of meaning outside the country’s official institutions and its WASP-dominated cultural mainstream. Towards the end of Goodfellas, as he prepares to enter the Witness Protection Program, the mobster Henry Hill lays out the boundary lines of Martin Scorsese’s America: there’s the violent, vibrant, ethnic America he’s leaving behind, a place of operatic emotion and properly seasoned food; and there’s the bland, boring, Anglo-Saxon America where the Bureau plans to send him, a place in which spaghetti with red sauce means “noodles and ketchup.”
This unique worldview is better suited to the stories of mobsters and misfits than to the lives of the one-percent. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the shady dealings in Wolf of Wall Street demand more social context than Scorsese is willing, or able, to provide. Jordan’s pump-and-dump schemes may seem mild compared to the fiscal malfeasance that destroyed the world economy a decade after his downfall, but they shouldn’t be glossed over simply because he grew up in the outer boroughs and eats spaghetti marinar’. Scorsese seems too bored by public affairs, and too enthralled by the sleek contours of trophy wives and private jets, to explore the real-world consequences of his characters’ unrelenting greed.
What he does reveal, with unique perspective and insight, are the spiritual dimensions of his country’s lust for money. When Jordan extols the virtues of wealth on the trading floor of Stratton-Oakmont, he sounds like a preacher at a revival; the call-and-response from his rapturous followers is a distorted echo of the religious rites in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). The film’s final scene, at a wealth-generation conference in New Zealand, is another potent evocation of the power of belief. As Jordan delivers the keynote address, the camera glides over the upturned eyes of his listeners, capturing their yearning for status and security in all its heartbreaking sincerity. The scene reminds us that the American prosperity gospel is now a global phenomenon, with adherents a world apart from the film’s Manhattan moneymen.
If “Stratton-Oakmont is America,” as Jordan argues in his climactic sermon on the trading floor, then perhaps the same symbolic weight can be attached to Scorsese’s recent career. Even more than his masterpieces of the 1970s and 80s, Scorsese’s latest films seem to mirror the national character. These are movies with bloated budgets and sudden eruptions of violence; these are films with boundless energy and an unquenchable, unsustainable, thirst for excess. As Pauline Kael once wrote of Bonnie and Clyde, Wolf of Wall Street is one of the year’s most “excitingly American American films,” but this is not the full-throated compliment that it used to be. At this late juncture in Martin Scorsese’s America, the film’s relentless excitement feels less like a sign of life than a symbol of decline.