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January 5, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

In a letter to his daughter, published in Italian in the magazine l’Espresso, Martin Scorsese speculated that his friend and mentor, John Cassavetes, would suggest the fundamentals of filmmaking haven’t changed with technology. “[He would] continue to repeat the things he always said – you have to be totally dedicated to work, you have to give all of yourself and you have to protect that first spark that led you to make that movie. You have to protect it with your life.”

Which leads me to believe that Martin Scorsese really doesn’t care about the feathers he’s ruffled with The Wolf of Wall Street.

And boy, have they been ruffled. There’s an odd misunderstanding going on that Scorsese’s latest opus somehow glorifies the crimes of Jordan Belfort. The stock-trading playboy swindled clients out of hundreds of millions of dollars and his company thrived on debauchery, drug-taking and decadence. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he really, really enjoyed it too.

But the brilliance of what Scorsese has pulled off here is in what it allows us to conclude. It’s a flip on the usual biopic structure, in which a character’s ups are sweet while their downs are sour. When DiCaprio’s Belfort starts describing the illegalities he’s engaged in, he breaks off. “You know what, it doesn’t matter,” he says. Because it doesn’t. There’s no question that every decision Belfort makes goes against taste, decency and the letter of the law. The environment is cutthroat, shown to thrive only at its most despicable. When Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, throws one of its office parties, we witness degradation, prostitution and drug abuse. There’s no grey area here. These people are having fun at the expense of others, but we aren’t joining in, we’re bearing witness.

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Out of the Furnace

Permit me to introduce my issues with Out of the Furnace by borrowing from a chunk of its screenplay.

Moments prior to the scene copied below, Christian Bale’s Russell Baze had attempted to procure drugs from a dealer at the home of Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, the man he believes has something to do with the disappearance of his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). DeGroat wasn’t in, but it didn’t matter: Baze was there on a fact-finding mission, which he made obvious by his deeply suspicious demeanour, the asking of far too many questions and a refusal to sample to product he was purchasing. After being satisfied by “Meth Guy”‘s answers, and completing his transaction, he leaves…

INT./EXT. METH HOUSE – FIRST FLOOR – MOMENTS LATER

BAZE and RED glance into each room and move toward the front door. Suddenly, a VOICE turns them around...

VOICE

Hey?

They both turn to find METH GUY holding their bag of METH.

METH GUY

Forgot this.

Baze moves toward him.

BAZE

Oh.... Thanks.

Meth Guy holds it up and slightly pulls it back...

METH GUY

Who’d you say you were?

BAZE

... I didn’t.

Baze holds Meth Guy’s look for a long, uncomfortable beat. Grabs the meth from Meth Guy.

RED

C’mon, bud...

Baze pockets the PURE TINA and moves to his truck...

It’s hardly Breaking Bad, is it?

This scene is only a small sample of the storytelling mistakes made by Scott Cooper’s second feature. In it, apparently rational characters behave irrationally for the sole purpose of drawing out emotionally-manipulative drama. It does no more than any number of low-rent horror films, in which the victim makes bad decisions that ensure they remain in the killer’s grasp. But at least low-rent horror films aren’t this worthy.

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