As soon as the film begins, Scorsese accomplishes something noteworthy: he breaks the fourth wall. The film’s protagonist, Jordan Belfort, begins speaking to us, like an intimate friend, baring his life’s stories in front of us. We know he would be taking us through his debaucherous journey, through its ups and downs, but what we don’t know is its extent. And, once someone takes you into his confidence, immediately, the question of point of view becomes prominent. You know, straightaway, that this story is being told from a filtered point of view, which makes it interesting because the story then also becomes intensely personal. It also becomes a little unreliable. How much of a drug-addled recount are you going to trust? And, this trope (breaking the fourth wall) is not employed only at the beginning of the film to render it a particular tone, but it’s one that’s constant throughout. In fact, in one of the later scenes in the film, when Belfort playfully chides his lawyer friend, Nicky, he shows the middle finger not to Belfort but to the camera, as if Belfort is the one behind it. You know, when your drunken friend sits close to you and recounts how he botched his life? This is what this film feels like.
We are introduced to a 22-year-old impressionable Belfort trying to understand the mechanics of the world he’s just been thrown into— Wall Street. And, on the first day of work, Belfort’s boss, Mark Hanna, sits opposite to him during lunch and explains in great detail what this world is about— money and cocaine (addiction). Not that we, or Belfort for that matter, were any oblivious to it, but during the course of the conversation he also informs Belfort something else: both the hows and whys of this addiction. It’s common knowledge that money is an addiction in itself. But, here, we get to know how one addiction (substance abuse) supports the other (money). Both provide different kind of highs, but like any other addiction, its effects are ephemeral. People keep coming back for another fix. But, Hanna also talks about someone else, who is probably the most significant as well as the least benefitted player in this cesspool: the investor. It’s his addiction that supports all the debauchery in their world. What a beautiful twisted world. A world populated by weak people but potent vices.
But, what’s more fascinating about this world is not the conspicuous vices: popping mind-altering hallucinogens, scant respect for marital allegiance; but the vices that are not easily visible on the surface— corrosion of humanity. In one particularly chilling scene (when Belfort and his friends are still coming to terms with their monetary muscle), Belfort nonchalantly talks to his friend, Donnie, about using a midget as a missile in the game of Dart to be played in the office. Donnie then tells him that this is nothing; some midgets could be even used as a bowling ball. Belfort thinks it’s a terrific idea. This behaviour is questionable not only because how morally warped it is, but one also wonders what is it that they are running after? How would Belfort and his friends, perennially swamped by money, define fulfilment? And, it’s obvious that Scorsese is too intelligent a filmmaker to feed any answers. But, what’s also important is, through Belfort’s story, Scorsese manages to say something equally important: about the state of our world, and most importantly, we. When a journalist at Forbes writes a particularly scathing piece on Belfort titled The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort doesn’t become a pariah; instead he becomes a celebrity. After the piece is published, young graduates are desperate to work at Stratton. This obviously says something about us; that we are craving for dishonesty, for taking the easy way out. That immediate pleasure is the only currency that matters.
But, again, coming back to Belfort, one is often left wondering what is it that Belfort is really pursuing? Because, once you are sufficiently affluent, money loses its original definition—something that allows you to afford commodities—instead it becomes a number. And, quite quickly in the film, Belfort reaches there. “We had more money than what we knew what to do with it,” says Belfort. And, it’s quite interesting that Belfort is not that interested in using his financial muscle to gain political power either. It’s this untainted, unbridled lust just for money. Neither are we introduced to an external competitor that he wants to vanquish. There’s no writing on the wall, no definite agenda. It’s all recursive. Belfort keeps going forward to maintain that high.
And, thankfully, Scorsese never holds back throughout the film. The stakes and the levels of addiction, and the subsequent debauchery it spawns, just keeps on increasing. Also, this could have been a very different kind of film, and perhaps one less worthy of admiration, had Scorsese striven for some kind of a meaning, at least superficially. Because the excesses of Belfort is the point of the film. “No one I have ever met in my life wants to be poor,” says Belfort during one of the many hands on sales meeting at Stratton. Exactly. But, through Belfort’s excesses, the film quite intelligently asks us: But, to what extent? To what extent would you go to be ‘rich’? Where do you draw the line? When do you know that it’s curtains for this burlesque? Again, just on the surface, the film is least interested in these questions. The film keeps on hopping from one scene of frenzied madness to the other, and even though, you might be constantly surprised by the extent Belfort is pushing his limits, it’s very difficult to not be engaged with his journey. You might not understand Belfort’s madness but it’s very difficult to remain indifferent to his exhilaration. There’s a reason why Scorsese broke that fourth wall right in the beginning.
The Wolf of Wall Street just doesn’t stop sprinting. The film is not embellished with many quiet, contemplative moments; a trait that’s central to biopics Hollywood churns out quite often. But, that’s also one of its most remarkable, profound strengths. And, when a poignant moment unfolds, it makes you want to understand the characters and their world better. For instance, consider the scene where Belfort is supposed to step down and hand over the company to Donnie. Belfort begins speaking to the employees of Stratton (or more appropriately, members of cult) but during the course of his speech, he changes his mind, and we realize that it’s not just money that binds these people. That beyond the constant chattering, breast-beating, slamming of telephones, and doling out numbers, these people are also rooted—again, with arguable extent—somewhere. But, Scorsese, again, very astutely doesn’t belabour these scenes.
Films that essentially unfold like a character study are singularly fascinating because it gives us the luxury to see the characters for what they were and what they have become. This intriguing interplay depends a lot on the character’s journey—especially his descend—but also whether the character experiences a moment of truth. Many a times, the moment of truth or profound internalization seems a way too convenient method to end a film. To give the audience a forced takeaway; it’s also superfluous most of the times. And, for a moment you think Scorsese tends to err when Belfort sees a plane crashing (the one he was supposed to be in) and he says, “It was a sign from God.” I am inclined to believe the enormous impact it must have had on Belfort in real life. But, for a second, one just hopes that Scorsese doesn’t take the easy route and use this incident as a crutch to smoothen out the edges in the film. But, thankfully, he doesn’t. This scene, like many other scenes in the film, exists only in the present. Scorsese doesn’t cop out. There’s no redemption or tying the film’s loose ends. For all its bizarreness, the story continues to exist. Also, even when we witness Belfort plummet to the absolute nadir and his subsequent fights to finally come to terms with his new identity, it’s refreshing and surprising that this transformation happens without a major plot arc or any discernible change in the character. In fact, these new developments are present like mere footnotes. This film is way too assured to rely on epiphanies. In fact, even Charles Foster Kane had a ‘Rosebud’ to hold on to in moments of despair. Jordan Belfort doesn’t go back to anything.