It’s one thing for critics to disagree about whether a movie is any good, and critical reception for The Wolf of Wall Street has been mixed (the film has a medium-good 75/100 Metascore). But cinematic quality isn’t the only thing those who have seen the movie. The based-on-a-true-story saga of a Gatsby-esque ’90s stockbroker who rises to extreme wealth via unsavory means has at its heart a man who luxuriates in all that his money can buy, especially all that’s unwholesome. Graphic nudity, copious drug use and rampant coarse language are just icing on the cake of fraud, violence and lack of respect for anything that isn’t money.
Which raises a question: aside from whether or not the movie is good, is The Wolf of Wall Street a critique of that culture or a celebration of it? When director Martin Scorsese lingers on the curves of a suit or a car or a nameless woman purchased as casually as another gold watch, is the audience meant to feel their blood boil with anger or race with lust?
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter over the New Year’s holiday, both Scorsese and his star, Leonardo DiCaprio, came down (unsurprisingly) on the former side, defending the movie. “A confidence man takes your trust, takes your confidence and betrays you. And this is on all levels, whether it’s low-level street crime, a white-collar crime and even a crime in religious organizations. This is something that’s not going to go away if you don’t talk about it,” Scorsese said, adding that the film is, in that way, about human nature and the social structures that facilitate such crimes. DiCaprio was even more straightforward: “It is an indictment of this world… We don’t like these people, you know what I mean? But we very consciously said, ‘Let’s insulate the audience in the mindset of what these people’s lives were like so we better understand something about the very culture that we live in.’” He used the same word—indicting—to describe the film’s moral stance to Variety.
And plenty of critics back them up. The Los Angeles Times warns moviegoers that the film will make them hate “those Wall Street high rollers” more than ever. At Rolling Stone, “Scorsese is jabbing hard at America’s jackpot culture.” Writing at RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz points out that Wolf‘s close attention to the debauchery it portrays “is not the same thing as saying that the film is amoral” and that the directorial choices indicate that Scorsese is “disgusted by this story and these people and finds them grotesque.”
TIME’s own Richard Corliss disagrees, calling the movie out for “bathing in amorality until it drowns,” turning crime into comedy by failing to take into account the actual scope of the crimes it portrays. Variety concurs, criticizing Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter for their failure to bring “any retroactive moralizing to bear” on the source material, which is, after all, a memoir by a man with a specific interest in not taking too close a look at his own actions. “It’s meant to be an exposé of disgusting, immoral, corrupt, obscene behavior,” writes The New Yorker‘s David Denby, “but it’s made in such an exultant style that it becomes an example of disgusting, obscene filmmaking.” Per the Wall Street Journal, “any meaningful perspective on the greedfest of the period is obscured by the gleefulness of the depiction.”
And, though the New York Times review acknowledges that “the movie is likely to be the subject of intense scholarly debate” over this question, the film’s portrayal of women as objects decides the question against Scorsese: while depicting rampant misogyny among the movie’s male characters, the filmmaker “is at least a participant-observer” for failing to treat its female characters as much more than playthings for the real people in the story, a storytelling task that’s more crucial than respecting the complexities of a sports car. (Not that there’s not disagreement on that point too: at Jezebel, that misogyny is seen as a critique too.)
According to one buzz-generating voice, the problem extends to the choice to make the movie in the first place. That voice is not a movie-maker or a critic; it’s Christina McDowell, the real daughter of someone who worked with the man DiCaprio plays, who wrote an open letter in L.A. Weekly taking the movie to task for even existing, criticizing Scorsese and DiCaprio for profiting from the story of a real crime when the victims of this crime and other financial malfeasance are still hurting. “Did you think about the cultural message you’d be sending when you decided to make this film?” she writes. “You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior.”
If it weren’t possible to tell a story about bad people doing bad things without becoming a bad person oneself, artists would have a major problem and cinematic history would be very different. Scorsese himself is, of course, a prime example: many of his most acclaimed movies, like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, have antiheroes and villains as their protagonists. Still, whichever side you think is right on the question of The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s not easy to tell such a story without creating some of this confusion over intentions and execution. The same would be true for a movie about any subject that tries to convey why its characters fall for something bad—whether it’s money, drugs or ill-gotten power—while also showing why that thing is bad, especially when it’s something—money, drugs or ill-gotten power—that’s not so difficult to desire.
It’s also clear that in walking that fine line—the matter of when “a movie about creepy macho excess turn[s] into creepy macho excess,” as the Boston Globe puts it— The Wolf of Wall Street does rule out one possible answer to the question. The movie’s message may be positive or negative or both or impossible to decipher, but it’s not neither.
Terence Winter, the screenwriter, told the New York Times before this debate really got underway that he tried not to judge his antihero in turning Jordan Belfort’s memoir into a script. But even if Winter’s screenplay just took sentences actually uttered by the real-life people on whom the movie is based, he would still be making an artistic judgment in choosing which of their sentences were worth including, helping to steer the audience to some feeling about the story. Cinematography and editing are equally moral actions. Yes, some of it is up to the audience—those who are predisposed to covet such wealth are surely more likely to crave what they see on screen—but every choice made by the filmmakers is just that, a choice.
After all, the critics who see Wolf as part of the problem rather than the solution generally aren’t claiming that Scorsese is trying to encourage his viewers to commit fraud, or that an overt moral-of-the-story aspect is necessary for a movie to be good. They’re saying that they think the camera loves the things that the characters love without sufficiently separating the artist’s desires from the character’s desires—that, when greed is this good, amorality is immorality.