18 years after ‘Casino’, his thematic sequel to the 1990 gangster epic ‘Goodfellas’, director Martin Scorsese delivers the third chapter of his (unofficial) crime trilogy, introducing a brand new breed of gangster, a New York stockbroker in the pursuit of wealth and power – Jordan Belfort, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. Similarly to protagonists Henry Hill of ‘Goodfellas’ and Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein of ‘Casino’, Belfort is one of Scorsese’s tragic opportunists misguided in their search of the American Dream. MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS
After multimillionaire Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) introduces himself and his life filled with material pleasures, Scorsese’s film (based on Belfort’s actual memoir) guides its audience through his career as a stockbroker, starting with his early unlucky experience on Wall Street as his first day of employment as a licensed broker happens to be Black Monday, the 1987 stock market crash. He starts again and builds up a broker team of his group of friends in order to launch his brokerage house ‘Stratton Oakmont’ and manipulates his way up to the top of the financial ladder by committing fraud crimes and money laundering. As he is noticed by the U.S. government and the FBI he encounters several opportunities to leave his company and settle for a profitable compromise, however, he believes that he is able to carry on, which leads to his inevitable fall and imprisonment. After he is released, he becomes a motivational speaker, suffering an ideological failure – blinded by his own self-confidence, pride and dependence of success he fails to realise when to stop – America, the land of opportunities betrays him.
Hollywood cinema has been discussing the American Dream since the 1930s. Early Prohibition era gangster films such as ‘Little Caesar’ or ‘The Public Enemy’ reflect on the Great Depression, presenting larger-than-life criminals as their protagonists, their ascent to the top and sudden fall in the criminal underworld. This concept is later re-imagined and re-used in several gangster and non-gangster films until present day – stories including Scorsese’s ‘Raging Bull’, Brian De Palma’s extremely violent 1983 ‘Scarface’, Ridley Scott’s ‘American Gangster’ and television series ‘Breaking Bad’. While numerous Scorsese characters make statements on society (‘Taxi Driver”s Travis Bickle’s violence responding to the world he sees around him, or ‘The King of Comedy”s Rupert Pupkin desperately trying to make it into showbiz), it is the careerist gangsters who fall victim to their own false image of unlimited success, carrying the same torch Tony Montana’s (‘Scarface’) corpse floats under – the misinterpreted sentence “The world is yours”.
“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster” – starts Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) his narration of ‘Goodfellas’. Hill’s motivation is different from Belfort’s as his aim is to belong – raised in a Brooklyn working class family his ambition is to gain respect and power (although being satisfied with a middle position) as part of the Mafia, the ‘wiseguys’. As ‘Goodfellas’ follows his three main male characters’ criminal career through 1955-80, the three different men are doomed by their own ‘Achilles heel ‘ – James Conway (Robert De Niro) becomes paranoid after a very successful heist and decides to assassinate the people involved, only to be caught eventually. Tommy DeVito’s (Joe Pesci’s Academy Award winning performance) psychopathic nature results in his violent death after he murders a ‘made man’ (a fully initiated member of the Mafia) and is murdered in return. Hill’s own fate is to survive under witness protection after he has been caught due to his drug addiction and independent project of selling cocaine and has testified against Conway and everyone he knew as a member of organised crime – the people he calls his friends and family earlier in the film. Ironically, as a kid he does not ‘rat’ on his friends after getting caught by the police, and learns the life lesson from De Niro’s character (the same person Hill points at in court years later, identifying him as a criminal): he should always keep his mouth shut. Hill therefore stops his life as a gangster, failing to lead the life he always wanted by violating its most important rule – destined to become an ordinary man. The element of betrayal is used in other Scorsese films too – Belfort’s co-workers including his best friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) betray him, an act he himself also commits by agreeing to talk about his business partners and ‘wear a wire’. Both Hill and Belfort are left without friends as they can trust no one and are not to be trusted either. This idea is also presented in Oscar-winning ‘The Departed’, a crime story where most characters of both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ side turn out to be informers.
Hill’s mistake is disobeying a law known by him since the beginning of his life as a criminal – he becomes disappointed in his idols, and is unable to be one of them. In contrast, Belfort’s ‘master’, fellow stockbroker Mark Hanna (Mathhew McConaughey), who introduces him to the ‘rules of Wall Street’ (the idea of manipulating stock buyers, using drugs and masturbating in order to handle the stress) and his money chant, is seen falling by Belfort in the beginning of the film. Hanna, although doomed by chance, is still a character broken by his own system, a system Belfort would follow through his career believing that it is the right way to success. As Hanna did, Belfort would relapse to the state of being average, losing his godlikeness, not realising that he has built his empire on a false idol.
Jewish-American Mafia associate Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) of ‘Casino’ always wins. He has been successful as a sport handicapper and he is now running a Las Vegas casino until his ‘luck’ changes – his life turns downhill after the appearance of prostitute Ginger (Sharon Stone) who he falls in love with. While he’s aware that the woman doesn’t have feelings for him and is only driven by money and the urge to financially support her former procurer (James Woods). His gamble with her is only complicated by Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), the film’s second narrator – Nicky, a mobster set out to conquer Las Vegas, a city of careful manipulation and hiding behind the system of the gambling business using violence and threat is a windmill fight, destined to fail – in this sense, Santoro’s career, cut short by the ‘bosses’ who become annoyed of his behaviour (the last straw being him sleeping with Ginger, now Rothstein’s wife) is the most reminiscent of Jordan Belfort’s as they are both unable and unwilling to realise their own limits, following a non-existent path that can only end by breaking, humiliating (and even killing) them.
Rothstein is not in control of his own fate. While Belfort and Hill violate the institution of family (Belfort’s trophy wife and Hill’s trophy family), commit adultery and aim for satisfying their material needs, his mistake is being in love. His troubled private life trying to control his drug addict wife affects his sense of judgement as several different reasons lead to the loss of the two things that are important to him, his woman and his career. As the activity of the Mafia is revealed, it is not only Rothstein’s role in Las Vegas, but the whole system, an empire of crime that falls apart – in contrast to ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, where Belfort falls out of the ‘ferris wheel that keeps spinning’. However, they are similar in a way – Rothstein, Hill and Belfort all end up where they began, now broken and bitter, losing their chance to make their dreams come true.
Although Scorsese does overuse the elements of office parties, sex and drugs, he is undeservedly accused of celebrating Belfort’s criminality. Compared to Oliver Stone’s 1987 ‘Wall Street’, where the character of Bud Fox realises corporate raider Gordon Gekko’s greed and stands up against him to serve justice and balance the morality of the film, Belfort is a Gordon Gekko himself, telling his story from his own point of view, trying to sell himself as a positive character. He breaks the fourth wall, tells jokes to audience – we cannot see anything else but his subjective explanation for his acts, Belfort’s own amusement park. With the end of the classic era of the Mafia, the gangster genre has lost its actuality. Belfort does not kill or rob in a conventional day, he is the gangster of modern days. His weapons are deceit and manipulation. As the only narrator of his memoir, he is doing the the same thing he has done before to make millions of dollars – manipulate YOU. Did he succeed?