I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Martin Scorsese is the most religious—or, at the very least, the most spiritual—filmmaker working today. For evidence, look no further than his preoccupation (hell, his borderline obsession) with the very Catholic themes of sin and salvation: Mean Streets’ Charlie strives to “make up for his sins on the street,” Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle seeks to eradicate the evil he perceives in the “sick, venal” world around him, Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta subjects himself to brutal punishment in the boxing ring in order to atone for the abuse he inflicts upon those closest to him, Shutter Island’s Teddy Daniels chooses lobotomy over living with the knowledge of his terrible crime, and even young Hugo Cabret spends his days fixing machinery in order to cope with his inability to mend his own broken heart. These seemingly disparate characters—a repentant mobster, a burnt-out veteran, an insecure boxer, a haunted U.S. Marshal, and a reclusive orphan—are united by the same overwhelming desire: their need for redemption.
Like Goodfellas’ Henry Hill, however, Jordan Belfort, the snake oil salesman turned self-made millionaire at the center of The Wolf of Wall Street, doesn’t seek redemption. He doesn’t want redemption, and probably wouldn’t pick it up if he found it laying in the street (indeed, in one of the film’s pivotal moments, he outright rejects the opportunity to walk away from his life of white-collar crime with relatively few strings attached). He thrives on decadence and debauchery, confusing excess for success, and if Scorsese seems to glorify and glamorize his protagonist’s shallow materialism—the fast cars, the loose women, the towering snow-white mounds of cocaine—it’s only to more clearly expose the rotten core beneath the seductive surface of the American Dream. When Belfort finally finally does decide to turn over a new leaf—after his sex- and drug-fueled paradise has transformed into a Hell of his own creation—he is motivated not by any sort of moral epiphany, but by pure self-preservation instinct.
Jordan Belfort is, in short, the most despicable character in Martin Scorsese’s entire filmography, a monumental feat considering the competition. Fortunately for the audience, he is also the funniest, by far.
While some of the film’s dark (and I mean dark) humor is largely physical/situational (such as when Belfort, so high on Quaaludes that he is literally incapable of speech, races to prevent an associate from incriminating himself on his wiretapped home phone), the majority arises from Scorsese’s typical deft and delicate characterization. Like the director’s best protagonists, Belfort is something of a contradiction, a shrewd, manipulative conman who is nevertheless guilty of the same greed and blind ambition that he exploits in others. Like Henry Hill, he is a drug pusher (in his endlessly quotable opening monologue, he explicitly refers to money—or, more accurately, the alluring idea of making more money—as the world’s most powerful drug) that makes the mistake of abusing his own product. Consider Belfort’s frequent speeches, verbal sleight-of-hand acts designed to boost employee morale, which resemble the mad ravings of some demented cult leader; consider also his bold (if clumsily veiled) attempt to bribe an inquisitive F.B.I. agent, a misguided act of defiance inspired by wealth-induced delusions of invincibility.
Ultimately, Jordan Belfort is both an irredeemable monster and a pitiful victim of his own bullshit, and the viewer can’t resist laughing at the irony of his self-inflicted misfortune. And so, with The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese adds yet another compelling character study to his long and illustrious resume.
[Originally written December 28, 2013.]