Christianity takes pride in its universality. Even when the entire world has gone to hell, you mustn’t. Martin Scorsese is one of the working artists who understands this best. He’s made a career of exploring Christianity’s roots in the poor and outcasts — it’s as inescapable for him as is the mucky world that his most famous characters feebly transcend. In a Scorsese film, earth sure as hell isn’t the City of God, but the path to heaven is paved in the sin extracted from it. More than prayer, vice is an acceptable substitute for release from wickedness — think Travis Bickle’s gunwork, Jake LaMotta’s bloody beaten face and the wiseguys of Goodfellas fighting a destiny of blue-collar mediocrity. In their desolation, these films indicate that a heart with a strong will can yet see grace in this life… if it’s willing to punch up. Peculiar are their reverses, Scorsese’s versions of paradise lost: criminal-heroes who soar to paradise only to see dramatic falls and come out unscathed. These spiritually ambivalent rags to riches stories preserve the tenor of their religious roots, but in them sin never points to salvation and ugliness doesn’t show a way out.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is a chemically bright supernova. If it’s not a clear summer day, then newly installed fluorescent bulbs cast away every spot of grime. In this dirtless soil, the self-made scumbag and legendary salesman Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) thrives. By his own confession, the only thing Belfort’s ever wanted was to get rich, so he went to Wall Street. His working-class background sets him apart from the stock market elites, and he and his firm, Stratton Oakmont, only rise as far as they do by means of his preternatural grasp of the art of the steal. For a laborious three hours, Belfort indulges in all the drugs, sex and power that money can buy until it catches up with him. By the end, his marriage is ruined, he spends a short stint in jail, rats on his friends and loses a ton of money. Finally, the Wolf becomes dethroned and lives in the purgatory of giving sales seminars to packed rooms of wannabe winners.
After its release, many, battered by The Wolf of Wall Street’s runtime and depictions of excess, looked for a moral to justify it. Some claimed that it puts the audience through pretty boy Belfort’s degeneracy to make viewers feel how depraved his self-defeating lifestyle was. But if The Wolf of Wall Street is supposed to be a moral fable, it’s about as weak as they come. Belfort’s easy prison time and cushy speaking job aren’t quite justice for his moral transgressions. The narrative doesn’t suggest any sort of punitive or causal relation between his excesses and his downfall. Paradise is lost because the FBI picks up his former associate for something entirely unrelated. Chance goeth before the fall, not pride. Belfort’s nosedive is not into a dismay where he faces his spiritual decrepitude, for he lacks the self-reflection to feel tormented by his actions. He is content to segregate his former lifestyle from the “actual world” and its mores. In the end, his sole motivation to finally go straight is a “sign from God,” this coming after nearly losing his life — twice — in a single nighttime trip to collect 20 million dollars.
The Wolf of Wall Street’s narrative suggests that Belfort’s fall from grace isn’t dealt in the rococo religious language of Good and Evil, but the volatile financial world he weds himself to. Belfort’s scam is parasitic on Wall Street’s excess accumulation. He reminds viewers that he’s the little guy, the outsider, going against the big financial institutions, which justifies his imitation of their practices (Belfort thinks of Stratton Oakmont as “Ellis Island,” a refuge for the huddled masses seeking their couple million a piece — the opportunist who gives opportunity.) For all his decidedly secular life choices, Belfort is a mystic, his ego is singularly disintegrated into the libido that pervades Wall Street, concretized into his larger than life office speeches. This is what makes him exceptional, and his cushy downfall merely appears tragic. At his most energetic, there isn’t more to him than the spirit of capitalism.
Rather than be born into a world filled with crime and seek violence to escape it, his little guy ambition leads Belfort to bind himself to the life and laws of finance, only to be rejected by them. Belfort doesn’t find in his sins the transcendence familiar from other Scorsese films, because he only understands the life he’s cornered himself into. The penultimate image of The Wolf of Wall Street is Jordan’s formerly widescreen personality boxed into a tighter aspect ratio.
Scorsese doesn’t tell viewers too much about Casino’s (1995) hero Sam “Ace” Rothstein’s (Robert De Niro) background. Like Belfort, he’s Jewish, got blue-collar origins, a talent for making money and finds himself in just the right circumstances. Their stories run similar lines too: Ace is one of the best sports handicappers around. When the mob starts capitalizing in Las Vegas in the 70s, he’s called upon to run a casino, which he does to enormous success, only to eventually lose it all. Rise, fall, schmuck. In Scorsese’s image of Vegas’ Wild West days, as Rothstein tells it, for street guys with convictions and warrants like him and his childhood friend become guardian Nicky (Joe Pesci), it “washes away your sins.”
It even looks sacred, like a baroque painting, the holy city’s neon bath is shot with mysterious patches of light from nowhere. In most movies about organized crime, gangsters straddle the territory between civil (“moral”) society, usually in the form of a family, and their clandestine operation. The business of crime mars you, gives you a past not fit for civilian life. In Casino’s Vegas, civility comes with trade. No one cares who you were, as long as each person gets their cut (even Ace’s family lives and dies by the Vegas hustle). Casino’s narrative begins after its heroes have gotten their second chance. Ace and Nicky are in Las Vegas for one purpose: to keep the money flowing into the count room. The count room, what Ace’s voiceover calls the “holy of holies,” gives them their heaven on earth.
While Belfort embodies the free flowing liquidity of finance, Rothstein is corporate steeliness through and through. A talented professional, his skill comes from his calculative intellect: politicking, computation, and psychology are in the service of minimizing losses and maximizing gains. There’s little difference between Ace the casino head and Ace the person. He works 18-hour days and even his affection for local hustler Ginger (Sharon Stone) seems like professional appreciation raised to the degree of love. Like Jordan Belfort, Ace’s total commitment to his trade ultimately builds as much as it destroys him. In giving over his skills to the operation of a casino for bosses in distant Kansas City, he puts his very being into in their hands. As Gilberto Perez noted in The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium, “[Ace] owed his rise to the mob, and he owes his fall to the mob. The merit boy may think he rises on his own, but he rises at the sufferance of the powers that be.” It’s not only his gossamer control over his own role that undoes him; Ace is as much a victim of his own work ethic as he is the mob’s caprice. He cares for little else than creating the most profitable casino he can. His understanding of the gambler’s hand gets him that and more.
The unregulated growth of Ace’s operation comes to affect so many individuals that more and more people need bigger and bigger cuts to keep it running. Heaven on earth isn’t frictionless and growth hits limits, even if ambition won’t. The bottom finally falls out not just because Ace gets too big — there’s no moral, only economic, retribution for soaring too high — but because chance again deals the final blow. When the delicate partnership of local government, Nicky, the mob’s profits and Ginger finally collapses, Ace is forced to return to his old job. Cast out of paradise, he’s not branded, he doesn’t suffer and there’s no search for redemption. He’s a nobody again, but it’s impossible to imagine him doing anything else. Ace’s talents and peculiar attractions are what got him to this point, but they’re also what, in the end, ensure that he won’t look beyond it. His peculiar lot is to keep doing what he does, no matter what it may bring.
In Scorsese’s inversion of the downfall, paradise isn’t the origin and its loss doesn’t mean moral decrepitude, only mediocrity. Jordan Belfort and Sam Rothstein left reality behind, bound themselves to an Eden they didn’t control and were cast out on its terms. These epics suggest that paradise collapses not because we sin, but because it is an image of life in negative. Scorsese’s treatment of the fall from grace is less about crime and punishment than it is about the spiritual torpor of wedding oneself to inhuman institutions no matter the return. In the end, for characters like Belfort and Rothstein, there’s nothing left but to settle in and work like the schnook one is.
Peter Goldberg (@peeto_g) is an aspiring film critic and programmer based out of New York. He graduated from the University of Chicago in June 2016 with a bachelor degree in philosophy. His work has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail.