Everyone tried to find out. It's almost impossible to name directors who don't owe him something, who didn't try to be him at some point. American Hustle, a smart, funny movie with, I would argue, a distinct voice is still basically a feature length adaptation of the famous Copacabana tracking shot from Goodfellas. Without his approach to soundtracks, his insane editing rhythms, meant to mimic the experience of addiction and intoxication, his use of cinema history as the real, ever-present backdrop of each of his stories, most major American filmmakers would never have had anywhere to take or foment their ideas. Looking at this year alone, it's less important to determine whether Spike Lee, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Andrew Bujalski, Paolo Sorrentino, James Gray, The Coen Brothers, Ari Folman, Noah Baumbach, Rob Zombie, Richard Linklater, Gore Verbinski, Paul Greengrass, JC Chandor, Johnny To, Neill Blomkamp, Jeff Nichols, Derek Cianfrance, James Ponsoldt, Alfonso Cuaron or David Lowery owe a stylistic or technical debt to Scorsese and more prudent to say that if Scorsese had never made his films or done what he has for film preservation, production and distribution, who would have their eyes cast in the direction of their movies? The presence of three film directors in the cast of Wolf speaks volumes about his influence. He set the stage in a lot of ways, even if he didn't do it alone. I'm glad as anything that he has because when you have a landscape shaped by the above directors, it becomes all too clear what Scorsese still brings to the table as an artist. If some of the smartest critics in the world have a hard time saying something distinct about his newest work it's because all year we've been given a steady diet of cinema ranging from 30-80% purity. The Wolf of Wall Street is 96% pure blue meth, Heisenberg levels. If it's tough to articulate why it's so good, it's because we're all still very fucked up.
There are a few keys to Scorsese and Schoonmaker's success. Leonardo DiCaprio doing the best work of his career, for one. That movie star charisma is put to the ultimate test as he's seen doing everything from tossing dwarves to snorting cocaine off of multiple prostitutes to punching women in the stomach. It's, ironically enough, a complete go-for-broke performance requiring not just that he undergo physical humiliation but abandon all sense of himself, right down to his motor skills in the already infamous Lemmons scene in which he suffers indignities more closely associated with Daffy Duck or Homer Simpson than a heartthrob Oscar nominee. DiCaprio proves himself both one of the most attractive leading men and one of the most gifted physical comedians alive in this film. In order to not walk out of the theatre (and many did when I saw it), you had better be thoroughly intoxicated by his presence and he pulls out all the stops. Wolf is fittingly Scorsese's most frenzied film since The Departed but far more is allowed to transpire during the quieter moments. DiCaprio has an added challenge at his feet in that he has to do all the groundwork that he split with Matt Damon in The Departed (a lot of info and personality dumped in our lap in a very short amount of time), but luckily this means we get more opportunity to know and like him, as well as understand his circumstances when the film grants us a reprieve from the whirlwind rise to power at the heart of the story. Slowing down also means really thinking about what exactly DiCaprio's antihero, Jordan Belfort, is actually doing to himself and others. He gets divorced in the quiet moments, he misjudges people in the quiet moments, he tries and fails to explain himself, to justify his actions when he doesn't even believe what he's saying. When the drugs wear off, when the party stops for longer than a second ("Three years later he killed himself. Anyway..."), Belfort realizes how hollow life is. Consequently when the film slows down, something awesome happens. We start to miss the momentum of the drug-fueled orgies that Belfort orchestrates. We miss the chaos and debauchery. We miss the lies as much as he does, because it's rendered in the most seductive terms. It may be Goodfellas or The Departed multiplied by a few dozen, as far as the speed and the violent, bacchanalian highs (or lows, I guess) are concerned, but there's another reason it works.
When Scorsese made Hugo in 2011 he used modern, shiny CGI-heavy grammar to pay homage to the birth of cinema and storytelling at 24 frames per second. He went to the future to write a loveletter to the past. Rewind a bit to Shutter Island, where he used the language of horror films from 1958-2008 to remake his favourite black-and-white horror films. He remade Bedlam and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari using colours he borrowed from The Horror of Dracula and craft familiar to fans of Wolf Creek, Zodiac and The Strangers. The result was heady brew less concerned with selling its nonsensical story than in celebrating 80 years of horror. The Wolf of Wall Street walks down that same staircase in RKO studios where Cat People was filmed, back when it was the Magnificent Ambersons staircase. I like to think that Wolf was a response to Citizen Kane being knocked off the Sight & Sound best films of all time top spot, because Orson Welles' fingerprints have been planted all over the joint. This is, to me, the secret to the film's success. Scorsese occasionally apes some of Welles' off-kilter compositions and maybe he borrows some of his editing tricks but I was too close to the screen and too sucked in to really pay attention. What I do know is there's a beautiful crib from Ambersons when Kyle Chandler's FBI agent enters DiCaprio's house for the first time. Scorsese may still be a student but damn if he doesn't act like a professor when he wants to. As in the Copa sequence, here's the whole film in four shots. DiCaprio stands at the top of the stairs, a dutch tilt bridging the distance between himself and the FBI agents who've come for him. A close-up of an incriminating note, paper the cause of his downfall, a reverse shot of DiCaprio, completely alone, leaning on the bannister. Then the dutch tilt again as the agents ascend the stairs, obliterating the distance between DiCaprio and Chandler, the rich and the working class. His ivory tower is an illusion, penetrated, a staircase climbed in mere seconds.
Belfort himself is a mix of Charles Foster Kane as a young man (the glee, the twinkle in his eye "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper") and Professor Charles Rankin from The Stranger. Scorsese and DiCaprio fuse the two men, tearing the guts out from under Welles' dashboard and hotwiring the narrative engine. Like Kane, Belfort's corrupted by privelege and boundaries he can too easily cross. Like Rankin, he arrives with his ambition and we don't get much of a backstory to explain away his actions. We're not meant to necessarily approve of Kane, but we are supposed to like him until nearly the bitter end. We slowly learn to hate and pity him because everyone else does. Rankin, by contrast, is revealed to be the villain fairly early on and the only reason we want him alive is because he's interesting and poor Loretta Young, the character we identify with, is smitten (and yes, that does make us Loretta Young once Belfort's first wife exits the film). We don't ever see their humanity laid bare because our perspective is limited. What we see is what everyone around them sees. We can see Rankin from Young's perspective and get a good idea as to why she could have fallen for the man that Edward G. Robinson's Mr. Wilson sees as pure evil. Kane, meanwhile, is the ultimate exercise in perspective. We only get him as others see him and think they know him. Welles shoots himself perpetually observed; Kane never gets a POV shot because we're never meant to know him. Scorsese has crossbred the 'best' films of all time. In Vertigo, the film that knocked Kane out of the number 1 spot, the film is all told from the perspective of Jimmy Stewart's P.I. Scotty, until finally he leaves the room and we're left with alone with Madeleine, the object of his desire, obsession and scrutiny as she looks into a mirror and we fianlly see her as she sees herself, as Scotty wants to see her. Scorsese does the same thing, but he does it to his Charles Foster Kane/Henry Rankin stand-in. We look into the mirror with Belfort, but more importantly we look out at the world with him and see what he sees. If we couldn't, we wouldn't follow him.
Kane is filmed like a monolith. Belfort gets those moments but the key to his success and his taking the audience with him are the reverse shots where he stand behind Belfort seeing what he sees. How do you say no to success when it's hundred eyes are staring at you, hanging on your every word. The film puts us behind the podium and looks out into the crowd that Welles didn't have the money to fill out with extras. We realize why, in those moments, he couldn't say no, he couldn't stop swindling, getting high, and ruining lives. Gods must rarely feel as high as Belfort and his maniac crew did at the height of their powers. They could buy anything and did because it made their reign more real than the last purchase. Scorsese puts the money, the drugs and the sex at our fingertips. I know I didn't want the fun to stop and I'm a fucking communist.
I believed in all of it. Just as there's nothing Belfort can't buy, there's nothing Scorsese will spare us, no corridor he won't venture down for the sake of find some new thrilling piece of language. The best innovation, and the most organic outgrowth of his body of work: drugs, alcohol and women will combine, time will all but stop like one of Kathryn Bigelow's exploded microseconds in The Hurt Locker, and the blues that Scorsese has gone out of his way to become associated with, specifically the refrain from that shot of aural whiskey Howlin' Wolf's (who else?) "Smokestack Lightnin'" will echo like it's being played from the inside of a tornado. (Digression: Like Belfort, Wolf was as famous for his appetites as he was for his career and had a habit of letting his performances get out of hand. Scorsese does treat these men as hard-living rockstars and this film is a much better movie about what it must have been like recording hits for Chess Records than the movie Cadillac Records). I've been replaying those moments in my head every ten minutes since I left the theatre. A plane full of brokers having sex with a veritable armada of prostitutes aboard a private jet, sudden turbulence and like that the air is thick with cocaine and nude bodies careening into each other in the slowest slow-motion you can imagine. Until this moment in time such a feat could not have been carried out to this effect and it feels like nothing short of a curtain pull on a new age of art. One can argue cinema was meant for greater things but I hasten to remind you that Vertigo is about a man who won't let death get in the way of sexual obsession and Citizen Kane follows roughly the same trajectory as The Wolf of Wall Street, a rags-to-riches tale of a man discovering he has no time to cultivate a soul, leaving billions of dollars, useless possessions and defeated women in his wake. Perhaps there are nobler pursuits than getting us to identify with the worst people on earth for three hours, but nobody cooked purer cinema this year. Scorsese, like we happy addicts who gladly consume his product year after year after year, always tries to say something new and I'll be goddamned if he hasn't done it.