Blog | On ‘Wolf of Wall Street’
Blogs, Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, January 31, 2014 1:30 - 2 Comments
By Dominic Fox
The Wolf of Wall Street is a Scorsese film, and that means its subject is ultimately the nihilism at the core of masculinity: the algebra of need which relentlessly impels the “alpha” achiever towards burnout and ruin.
Its protagonist, 90s uber-swindler Jordan Belfort, is a self-described drug addict, sex addict and money addict; but his addictions, even his insatiable lust for “fun tokens” (as he at one point refers to banknotes), are finally only instrumental to his real compulsion, which is coming out on top. The trophies accumulated along the way – Rolexes, real-estate, marriages to desirable women, Swiss bank accounts, enormous boats – are squandered and destroyed without apparent remorse. The more you can afford to lose, the more untouchable you are.
It’s a deeply fatalistic film, which deploys without fear of the cliché the expression “chickens coming home to roost”, but one in which only the male characters have fates to speak of. Women belong to the world of things, although they retain an opaque power of withdrawal and refusal: the only thing that ever really gets to Belfort is the threat of his wife cutting off sexual access to her body, and paternal access to his daughter. He responds with a violent and botched abduction attempt, a telling lapse into thuggery and ineptness which gives us a brief glimpse of his amoral compulsiveness stripped of its underdog alibi and coked-up charisma.
Such distressing episodes aside – and they are never dwelt on, or treated as particularly consequential in the overall flow of the story – The Wolf of Wall Street is a hugely enjoyable spectacle which oscillates very satisfyingly between frenzy and bathos, each of which is played for its own particular sort of laughs.
The length of the film is in one sense the most surprising thing about it – the ultimate collapse is deferred and deferred and deferred, for longer than you’d imagine possible. Such, it may sometimes seem, is the time of capitalism itself: although The Wolf of Wall Street should not be mistaken for a morality tale about the excesses of finance capital, it does at this formal level capture something of the way the global financial system eludes and frustrates our human-scale narrative demands for balance and closure.
The fates may eventually close in on Belfort and his co-conspirators, but the pay-off is hardly in proportion to the scale of their crimes. One cannot meaningfully punish a wolf, or hope to teach it the error of its ways. It is left to Belfort’s nemesis, the incorruptible FBI agent who finally brings him down, to personify the forces of civilisation and restraint – or an “ethical” masculinity which preserves itself and others, through honourable ascesis, from the worst. We may wonder, once again, what the women have to say about the matter.
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