EARLY ON in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), new-to-the-job cabbie Travis Bickle is seen writing in his journal, his words figured via a monotone voiceover. “I’m working long hours now, six in the afternoon to six in the morning, sometimes even eight in the morning. Six days a week, sometimes seven days a week. It’s a hustle but it keeps me real busy,” Travis writes. “I can take in three, three fifty a week, sometimes even more when I do it off the meter.” As he cruises through seedy Times Square in his cab, Travis’s voiceover continues, its blankness at odds with the increasing harshness of his words. “All the animals come out at night,” he says. “Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” But despite his aversion, Travis picks up anyone, drives anywhere: “Don’t make no difference to me,” he says. When he stops in Midtown for a prostitute and her suit-clad John, he keeps his eyes trained straight ahead as the two get it on in the back of his cab. “Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the back seat,” the voiceover goes on, as Travis is shown parking his taxi at the end of his shift. “Some nights I clean off the blood.”
Travis is a psychopath; he is a bigot and a woman hater. His puritan, nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic is not only an attempt to scrub himself clean of his own tainted internality, but also lines up with his violent homicidal fantasies of getting so-called scum off the streets (as he tells Cybill Shepherd’s campaign worker Betsy, “I like to work. Every day. Get those old coots off welfare and make ‘em work for a change.”). Travis, though, is not just a psychopath. As the one cleaning cum off the seat of his hired cab at the end of the night, his ire, and the ire of those like him, has been traditionally overlooked in the American context, seen at most as a stage to get past. Travis’s rage is that of the marginalized, those the American dream has left behind — who both desire and resent its inaccessible boons, and those who’ve attained them.
Scorsese’s movies often have a complicated attitude towards society’s disruptive and marginalized elements, and the type of relationship those elements can have with the wider social sphere. It’s telling that in Taxi Driver, the director cast himself in a bit part, playing Travis’s momentary double — a jilted husband whose wife is cheating on him with a “nigger,” a transgression for which he’s going to “kill her with a .44 Magnum pistol,” as he tells Travis from the cab’s back seat. “Did you ever see what a .44 can do to a woman’s face?” he asks. “Did you ever see what it can do to a woman’s pussy?” The marriage of racism, misogyny and homicidal mania is clearly dialed up here for maximum horrifying effect, but Scorsese’s choice to play the mouthpiece for these types of sentiments also shows his own ongoing fascination with them. Nonetheless, while Taxi Driver links this fascination to a much larger social context (and I think a similar thing happens in other Scorsese movies of the same era, like Mean Streets or Raging Bull), as the director’s career proceeded, that context increasingly fell away, while the fascination remained.
This is nowhere more apparent than in Scorsese’s great, flashy gangster movies of the ’90s — 1990’s Goodfellas and 1995’s Casino. The issues animating his social realist movies of the 1970s continue to play a part in these later films: the effects of violence, money and drugs on individuals and their communities; the marginalization of certain ethnic groups; the conflicts between men and women in an era struggling past traditional gender roles. Yet as his career progresses, there is also a concurrent narrowing in on these issues insofar as their influence reaches within a very particular subculture. Goodfellas for example begins with the protagonist Henry Hill as a young boy, recounting in voiceover how he used to believe that “being a gangster is better than being President of the United States” — a claim that is political in the direct parallel it draws between the criminal and the conventional elements of American society. Over the course of the movie, though, this initial twisting of the classic Horatio Alger story isn’t really complicated any further. Instead, we remain with that one move, where “good” and “bad” are neatly swapped, and we, as the viewers, get to watch, both amused by — and safe in — the knowledge that the universe we’re observing is completely separate from our own.
Emblematic of this is Joe Pesci, who plays essentially the same role in both Goodfellas and Casino — that of a gangster whose diminutive stature and comically nasal voice belie his frightening, reflexive thirst for blood. One of the most well-known scenes in Goodfellas, in which Pesci’s Tommy chillingly toys with Ray Liotta’s Henry (“I’m funny how? Like a clown? You mean I amuse you? I make you laugh?”) reveals the ways in which Tommy’s characterological makeup is remarkably distinct from Travis Bickle’s. Both men are primitive menaces (Tommy, Henry says, is a “pistol”; Travis’s fellow cabbies call him “killer”), but while Travis is all repressed, torqued-up depth, a reflection of the complex contemporary urban anomie in which he lives, Tommy is pure caricature, marked by physical eccentricities and exaggerated behavioral tics; as such, for all his psychotic fearsomeness, he’s an exception to society’s broader tenor rather than its general rule. Scrosese’s gangster movies are masterpieces of dialogue, soundtrack and editing — all snap and crackle and shine — but, with the exception, perhaps, of Casino’s treatment of Sharon Stone’s mercenary but vulnerable Ginger, they are interestingly apolitical, concerning themselves more than anything else with the half-comical, half-frightening rhythms that animate interpersonal relationships.
Now, nearly two decades after Casino, comes The Wolf of Wall Street, which portrays the life story of the once disgraced and indicted, now allegedly rehabilitated penny-stock king Jordan Belfort. After a decade and a half of moviemaking which was, to my taste, probably the worst of Scorsese’s career — dominated as it was by pompous, humorless epics like Gangs of New York, The Aviator and Shutter Island (even The Departed, which many saw as a return to the director’s gangster movie greatness, appeared to me both stiff-jointed and overwritten) — it was a relief to see a film that seemed looser, alive, both funny and disgusting. Wolf is a kind of crooked bildungsroman, in which a young, fresh-faced man arrives at a den of thieves, learns the ropes quickly and eagerly, and comes to best his mentors, only to explode spectacularly when he gets too ambitious and reckless for his own good. But unlike Goodfellas, the depiction in Wolf of the financial sector’s ongoing attempts to ram “stock down […] clients’ throats till they choke on it,” as Belfort terms it in the movie, is far too real — we don’t have the luxury of pretending that it isn’t. And indeed, there’s been quite a bit of talk about the movie’s ethical stance since it came out in late December, much of it generated in response to Christina McDowell’s open letter to Hollywood — the daughter of one of Belfort’s former business partners. Professing to that her father ruined not only her own life but her family’s as well, and that his shady financial dealings have left many innocent investors’ finances and lives in shambles, McDowell writes, “Let me ask you guys something. What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story? Do you think his victims are going to want to watch it?”
As much as I’m usually reluctant to judge a movie’s value vis-à-vis its supposed moral worth (because where would we be, really, if evil characters didn’t “deserve” to be the protagonists of fiction?) questions like McDowell’s are understandable in today’s contemporary moment. Regardless of whether or not we’ve been directly swindled by a crooked trader like Jordan Belfort, we are living in a time in which almost all of us, in big and small ways, are getting fucked over by Wall Street: still, now, post-2008, again and again and again. And so the political questions that are raised with regard to Wolf are obviously much more pressing than those that are raised in connection to bad-protagonist works like Goodfellas. We could say that these questions are, in fact, closer to those raised by Taxi Driver, with its wider social context; the central difference is that the protagonist this time around isn’t the one wiping the cum from the backseat — he’s the one doing the cumming, both literally and figuratively, and he couldn’t give a damn who’s wiping it off.
This may sound disgusting, and it is. After watching Wolf in the theater, my husband leaned for a long time over the frozen snowbank along the side of the road, on the verge of throwing up. While it’s true he may have also eaten something bad that day, I too was feeling slightly sick post-viewing. We’d both enjoyed watching the movie, we agreed once we’d recovered our bearings. But this didn’t contradict how deeply gross we found it to be, too. The question was: to what ends this grossness?
Never before have money, drugs and sex appeared so unalluring on the big screen, or, stated another way, never before have such revolting characters been shown doing things that under other circumstances might have seemed potentially attractive. And this is part and parcel of the movie’s critical stance. These characters are drawn broadly; the nail of their outsized physical attributes hit on the head repeatedly, mercilessly. Jonah Hill, playing Belfort’s repulsive right-hand man Donnie Azoff, is all blindingly whitened teeth, immense glasses and creepily raspy voice; Margot Robbie, in the role of Belfort’s supposed wet-dream of a wife, is an extreme blond vision with a pronounced outer boroughs accent and an early ’90s Versace habit, a Botox queen for a pre-Botox era; and Belfort’s claque of hometown losers-cum-brokers each have their own exaggerated signature (an enormous Star of David on a chain, swinging against an apishly hairy chest; an obvious, wispy toupee; etc.). I kept expecting someone vulgar and slobby and immoral — maybe, say, a crooked politician like Rob Ford or Chris Christie — to make a cameo appearance.
In playing Belfort, too, Leonardo DiCaprio is a cartoonish figure, his rubberized Quaalude-face alternately grimacing and grinning maniacally above his ham-like neck, buttoned up a tad too snugly into silken ties and Armani suits. In fact, this cartoonishness is what finally allows DiCaprio to play a role exactly right for him. With his enormous, doughy face and tiny, slit-like features, the current DiCaprio has moved so far beyond his angst-ridden, Britpop-skinny Basketball Diaries self that he may as well be a completely different actor. His brawny frame, seemingly growing ever larger from year to year, has for a long time felt grossly over-the-top, at odds with his ongoing attempts to play earnest dramatic heroes. Here, finally, Wolf lets him rollick like the bro that his trainer-worked physicality suggests he really is, whether he’s invigorating his employees to a fascist frenzy on the trading floor, sweatily fucking hookers, or chasing multiple ludes with monster lines of coke. What’s more, the pumped-up “greed is good” speeches, the prostitutes, the drugs — these are all repeated seemingly endlessly, and like the movie’s grossness, this strategy, again, appears intentional. The repetition is knowing, and it operates like the grotesque loop of a gif that you can’t look away from.
But what of society’s margins, its victims? For all of these brokers’ humble, bridge-and-tunnel beginnings, they’re no underdogs: their violent rise makes them the ultimate oppressors, with their piggish money swindling, casual homophobia and pathological woman-hating. As much as one could fantasize about Travis Bickle coming unexpectedly into Belfort’s world and washing some of the scum off that particular street, we should keep in mind that earlier movie’s great deliberate irony: that Travis’s rageful explosion outward — his vigilante massacre of the child prostitute Iris’s captors — is, in the end, reincorporated into the sense-making mechanisms of the amoral society that routinely rejects those like him. In both Taxi Driver and Wolf, Scorsese shows that opposition can only be folded back into the system, converted into other, newer forms of it.
In Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, the young arriviste Rastignac debates a hypothetical question with his friend, the medical student Bianchon. If you were able to make yourself rich “by killing an old Mandarin in China by simply willing it in Paris,” Rastignac asks, would you do it? After joking a little (“Is the Mandarin very old?”), Bianchon responds in the negative (“I am quite content with the life which I expect to lead in the provinces.”) The ambitious, hungry Rastigniac, however, isn’t so sure, and later on in the book, with his sentimental education advancing and his moral fiber weakening, he tells Bianchon that while the Mandarin isn’t dead yet, he is “at his death-rattle.” This development is presented as sorry, but also inevitable. It is simply the way things go. In an affecting scene towards the end of The Wolf of Wall Street, Denham, the FBI agent who ends up bringing Belfort down, is shown riding the subway. As the Lemonheads’ version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” plays in the background, Denham looks at the men and women around him. They’re not even particularly sad or seedy, just innocuous-looking, washed out: in a word, working people. But the contrast they present to the movie’s hopped-up, ravenously out-of-control characters is staggering, a move from multicolor to sepia.
In the movie’s final scene, we see DiCaprio-as-Belfort being introduced by the real-life Belfort, who, in a brief cameo, plays an MC at a sales seminar in New Zealand. The real-life Belfort, roidy-looking and wildly bug-eyed, mugs exaggeratedly before the camera, his voice squeaking and falling as he grotesquely calls Belfort (himself!) “The single baddest motherfucker I have ever met” before inviting him onstage. DiCaprio-as-Belfort, out after a relatively brief and cushy stint in a minimum-security jail, is now a successful sales trainer, hocking his dubious wares around the world. Nattily casual in a button-down and boot-cut jeans, he steps down to the front row of audience members and, making tight, shystery eye-contact, asks them to try selling him a pen he hands them. As they mumble ineffectively, nervously, a great sadness washes over us. A lot of Mandarins are dying, unknown and unseen, to keep the Rastignacs of the world alive and thriving, and here, at the end of the movie, the equation is placed baldly before us: On the one hand, failed, stuttering salesmen; on the other, a doubled, doubly revolting Belfort. O America! We think. O humanity! We think. Arise, ye Mandarins from your slumbers!