We sit entrenched in an Irish mob den. Here, anyone could be a mole and thus everyone toes Death’s door. Then we are transported to an island, where a man is unsure of what is real, and what isn’t. His feverish nightmare reaches its peak before bringing his world down around him. And now we are in Paris, France, as snow falls quietly in front of a massive clock. Behind its imposing face, two young children discover the secrets of a filmmaker in hiding.
Given Martin Scorsese’s recent films, it’s no surprise there was backlash when he released The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). It’s been more than 20 years since the legendary filmmaker pushed the boundaries of the social conscience. Particularly after Hugo (2011) won five Academy Awards, the public image of Scorsese has been tempered with that of a straightforward, audience-pleasing director. When he followed up the kid-friendly Hugo with the extremely adult The Wolf of Wall Street, audiences seemed to forget that the latter, not the former, is business as usual for the director.
Still, it is reasonable to carefully investigate any film that covers racy subject matter. Does The Wolf of Wall Street celebrate Jordan Belfort’s life? A fair question. Judging by the amount of time the film spends on Belfort’s extravagant life, one might think so. But there is more to a movie than how it divvies up its runtime, and the content of The Wolf of Wall Street tells a different tale. Giving Belfort center stage was not about conveying a message, but about engaging the audience. Scorsese’s films have always tapped into a universal sense of empathy – something critic Roger Ebert often spoke of – so that one might invest in the peaks and valleys of his characters’ journeys.
However, empathy does not equate to sympathy. I and many other moviegoers hated Jordan Belfort as a character. With every one of his stupid drug-addled mistakes, every underhanded deal he made, and every hateful advance he made on his wife, all I wanted was to see him pay for his deeds. But without Scorsese’s engrained sense of empathy, I wouldn’t have cared about him, his life, or his eventual comeuppance. This has always been the director’s modus operandi, going as far back as his first films. Each of his protagonists is empathetic in their own way. Unfortunately, this element is often lost in controversy.
The director unleashed Taxi Driver (1976) on an unsuspecting public. Featuring a desaturated color palette and a one-man tour de force from Robert De Niro, the movie shocked audiences with its graphic depiction of violence. Skeptics particularly questioned the wisdom of allowing a 13-year-old Jodie Foster to witness the gunplay, casting a pall over the movie’s debut. Despite De Niro’s landmark performance, the now-iconic Travis Bickle was, for a time, left by the wayside.
With Raging Bull (1980), Scorsese and De Niro again tested audiences with a brutal tale of boxing and domestic abuse. As with Taxi Driver, detractors felt the intensity of the fights pushed acceptable limits of bloodshed. Although movie received some early accolades, not all critics were enamored of the film. De Niro’s role was overshadowed for a second time.
Ten years later, Scorsese released Goodfellas (1990). In a world before Quentin Tarantino and the McDonaghs, the film met with unrest. It was unflinching in its portrayal of gangster life; the overt combination of sex, drugs, and outrageous language was unprecedented. But worse than that, according to some journalists, was Scorsese’s use of humor. For them, his film made life in the mafia look like a good time. On that premise, the film was lambasted, and its brilliant ensemble work was all but ignored.
Yet today, these movies are all considered masterpieces. Even back in 70s, amid public scorn, the industry took serious notice of Scorsese. Taxi Driver was nominated for several Academy Awards and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Raging Bull also saw praise, earning two Oscars eventually finding a spot in the National Film Registry in 1990. Taxi Driver was likewise added in 1994, along with Goodfellas in 2000.
Indeed, Scorsese films tend to gestate in the minds of audiences well before they find acclaim. And now, with The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio face that problem once again. Just as with his older movies, Scorsese presents his main character as a real person. Jordan Belfort indulges his every whim as he callously wields money as a weapon, but Scorsese never lets him slip into caricature.
The result is a portrait of a man: a despicable man, to be sure, but a man nonetheless. Belfort may represent the worst of our species, but that delineation is never breached; the character remains grounded in the reality of luxury. This allows The Wolf of Wall Street to show its protagonist respect without condoning his actions. Scorsese invests the audience in Belfort’s rise and fall from the white collar world. In this, the movie is true to the director’s long-held attraction to the human condition.
The Wolf of Wall Street will stand the test of time because it has all of the characteristics of Scorsese’s best. I have n doubt that the initial outcry of a few will be swept into the annals of history. Whether or not it wins big at this year’s Academy Awards is immaterial. Scorsese’s latest will find the recognition it deserves because in the end, empathy always wins.
This article was originally published on ScottFeinberg.com.