The best shot in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street comes a few minutes from the end: the camera looks down into the foyer of Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) Long Island mansion such that the second-floor banister curls across the bottom-right—where Belfort, our hero, is perched—and upper-left corners of the screen. The effect of the frame is that of a fixed eye, gazing down. An omnipotent angle. The stairs circle outside our view, bending in to meet the ground floor just where three F.B.I. agents, led by Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), stand. Belfort considers the agents (us, too, over his shoulder) as Denham produces the smoking gun: a yellow note in a clear evidence bag. We can’t read it, but we know it’s the “DON’T INCRIMINATE YOURSELF. I’M WEARING A WIRE.” warning Belfort slipped his partner in white-collar crime some film-minutes earlier. Words are exchanged, but we don’t need them. With the sight of the yellow rectangle, the jig is up.
This exit contrasted with Belfort’s entrance into the financial world roughly three hours previous, where we see him lunching with his employer’s highest-performing broker, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Hanna is quick to take the new blood under his wing (McConaughey here is looking especially birdlike at some in-between stage of his Dallas Buyers Club transformation). He tells Belfort that one of the most important things to a long career in stock peddling is relaxation, and asks him how frequently he masturbates. Hanna brushes away Belfort’s answer—almost as if it were a matter of course—and tells his new charge to “. . . pump those numbers up.” When you deal in figures all day long, he says—“all very acidic, above-the shoulders”—you’ve got to “. . . keep the rhythm below the belt.” He amends: “This is not a tip. This is a prescription. Trust me. If you don’t, you will fall out of balance. Split your differential and tip the f— over. Or worse yet—I’ve seen this happen—implode.”
This may be the film’s best defense (and in its own vocabulary) against those commentators who find its excesses a non-starter. The movie, of course, is intentionally super-visceral and itself keeping its narrative and formal rhythms “below the belt”—designed not to advocate but to provoke. Yes: provoke anger and disgust, but also laughter and envy, because, of course, there is something about Jordan Belfort’s behavior that we envy. If not the lawlessness or debauchery then the financial freedom enabling both.
When Belfort and Agent Denham meet for the first time aboard the former’s new helicopter-clad yacht, Belfort tries to expose his visitor’s (and our) insecurity. He reveals he’s done some digging and learned that the agent once aspired to be a stockbroker himself. “You ever think about what would’ve happened if you would’ve, you know, stayed the course?” Belfort prods. “When I’m riding home on the subway,” Denham responds, smiling, “and my balls are f—— sweating—I’m wearing the same suit three days in a row—yeah, you bet I do. I’ve thought about it before. Who wouldn’t?”
Immediately following the later scene in the foyer, Lemonheads’ rock ’n’ roll version of “Mrs. Robinson” plays as Denham and his agents raid Belfort’s firm. The song seems out of place during the montage until we see Denham, post-investigation, riding home on the subway. As he looks at his peers onboard the train, the lyrics reach
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you,
Woo, woo, woo,
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Jolting Joe has left and gone away,
Hey, hey, hey,
Hey, hey, hey.
David Greendonner (’12) is an MFA candidate at Western Michigan University where he teaches writing and is the managing editor of the literary magazine Third Coast.