Of all the scenes in “The Wolf of Wall Street” that are dripping with debauchery, there’s one I can’t shake. It’s a relatively early scene, when Stratton Oakmont, the brokerage-house brainchild of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), has its first in-office gala of world domination. A marching band parades between cubicles. Dancing girls wiggle their assets while men gawk and grab. And one female employee, who’s so peripheral in the long haul that I can’t remember her name, takes a seat in front of the workaday masses and has her head shaved, an act for which Belfort gifts her a bonus of $10,000 (allegedly for a boob job). As her blonde locks fall to the floor, the woman, surrounded by other women, who are present for crude amusement, hauntingly holds her reward with both hands, the bills flittering between her fingers like gold coins found in a treasure chest. Watching this scene, the levels of flaunted, unfettered misogyny become incredibly hard to stomach. And as Belfort continued barking at his minions with dictatorial zeal, and the balding woman became more and more shorn and demeaned, a bit of déjà vu began scratching at the back of my mind.
What was the last scene of unrepentant, humiliating horror to elicit such disgust from me? It was Patsey’s (Lupita Nyong’o) near-fatal whipping in “12 Years a Slave.”
Before I continue, I should address the inflammatory elephant in the room. Some may argue that, by merely making this case, I’m trivializing the atrocities of slavery, irresponsibly putting them on even ground with the hedonistic exploits of a select group of loathsome stock brokers and their associates. I’m uninterested in debating the relative awfulness levels of slavery and modern Wall Street crimes, and I don’t wish to diminish the broader virtues of Steve McQueen’s film — which, for many, represents the bold, baldfaced outing of that which has long been tempered in popular culture. But the fact is, both of these films invite us to wallow in American horror stories with effects and implications stretching far beyond their respective microcosms. And in strict regard to unflinching formal and narrative approaches, wherein no unsettling stone is left unturned in exposing viewers to ugly truths, you don’t get much more extreme than these two sprawling indictments.
At the moment, perhaps the closest cousin to Scorsese’s latest isn’t “American Hustle” or “Goodfellas,” both of which have now been serially compared to “Wolf” in a kind of filmic-influence love triangle, but a movie with fewer obvious similarities of genre. For all its absence of true moral takeaway, and its depictions of “bad” people doing very bad things, “American Hustle” is an unbridled joy to watch, with scant horrors to speak of. Apart from the interminably violent “Lone Survivor,” which you might call Peter Berg’s militaristic rehash of “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”” and “12 Years a Slave” are, in my mind, the two toughest-to-watch movies of 2013.
I keep coming back to the dual scenes of public shaming of women: One is so nasty in its satire that it left me inspecting the reactions of fellow filmgoers (“does anyone think this is funny?”), and the other is so brutal in its envelope-pushing punishment that, with every crack of the whip, I was hammered further into tearful submission. Of course, while the base feelings they conjure may be similar, the circumstances of these women are wildly different. The pitiful Patsey is rather hopelessly doomed, bound to a life she can’t escape and that will likely kill her, whereas Belfort’s office worker could quit her job if it finally became too much, instead of, if you’ll pardon the expression, playing slave to the almighty dollar.
Such is where things get tricky, and where new links between “Wolf” and “12 Years a Slave” crop up. Patsey is one of the battered and oppressed, plain and simple; the office worker is a willful participant in a madly amoral profiteering machine, no matter how misogynistic her treatment at work may be. The point is, the two films’ troubling kinship shifts gears once you consider that everyone at Stratton Oakmont, including the female office workers, are abusers and oppressors, destroying the lives of thousands of unfortunates to boost their own personal clout. Even if only guilty by association, the Stratton Oakmont staff members are, in a sense, proxies for the slave owners presented by McQueen — figures of privilege who ruthlessly prey on those they see as lesser, and who steadfastly turn an inhuman blind eye to the harm they’re causing (or, in the case of “12 Years a Slave,” also scarily stare it square in the face). A further connection could be made between single-mother-turned-Stratton-Oakmont-Kool-Aid-guzzler Kimmie (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and slave-turned-plantation-owner-mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard), two opportunistic women who drastically overlook their better judgment to advance their statuses and protect their own well-beings.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” and “12 Years a Slave” may not be the definitive accounts of stock-market corruption and American slavery (as some folks have opined), but they’re sure as hell the most in-your-face accounts the cinema has ever seen. And they both speak to a theme that’s permeated the movies of the moment. “12 Years a Slave” secured the No. 2 spot on A.O. Scott’s 2013 Top 10 list, but it could, in theory, have just as easily been bulked together with his No. 10 six-pack, which combined “Wolf,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Spring Breakers,” “The Bling Ring,” “Pain & Gain,” and “American Hustle” in a tie defined by excess and “capitalism, baby!” Wind back the clock 170 years, and you’ll see American excess and capitalism at its most hideous and morally bereft, when the elite and opportunistic didn’t just toss Benjamins to the wind and fill their pads with “shiiiiiit,” they collected human beings.
The differences between “12 Years a Slave” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are obvious. One offers a sympathetic hero, the other offers a despicable antihero (despite his many brilliant “Wolf” insights, I honestly can’t agree with Nick Pinkerton that I ever felt “complicit” in Jordan’s actions, as I may have in the actions of Norman Bates). One states its director’s motives as plainly as possible, the other veils them to the point of imperceptibility, beneath thick, pitch-dark layers of shockingly eerie comedy.
Does Scorsese condone the voracious lifestyle in which his movie unapologetically basks? I personally don’t believe he does any more than McQueen condones Michael Fassbender’s slave-owning Epps taking a bull whip to Patsey’s back. But the fact that Scorsese’s position is that much harder to pin down makes “Wolf,” for me, the more fascinating work. What’s more, the rotten, tainted soul of Belfort is intentionally buried within a landfill’s worth of unnerving satire, while the soul of cheer-worthy Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), which is meant to be readily within the viewer’s grasp, is inaccessible despite the best efforts of Ejiofor, unintentionally obstructed by McQueen’s preoccupation with showy form.
I’m not out to play favorites; however, I do find it interesting that so many viewers and critics who’ve sung the praises of “12 Years a Slave” have griped that “Wolf” is redundant, excessive, and, as David Edelstein wrote in his takedown, “an endurance test.” Are these not the same tactics of shock-and-awe employed in “12 Years a Slave?” Overwrought, over-the-top, yet accurate, scenes of human indecency paraded so as to expose the sick reality of American sin? Is Solomon Northup hanging from a tree with his toes in the mud for god-knows-how-long effectively different than Belfort capping off his relentless contempt for women by delivering a literal gut-punch to his wife Naomi (Margot Robbie)? (To be fair, Edelstein also reluctantly accused McQueen of being “guilty of overkill.”)
Ugliness is ugliness, horror is horror, and in their respective contexts, it’s fair to say “Wolf” and “12 Years a Slave” serve up equal doses of both.