Among the many things I could say about Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is this: Scorsese sure does put the f—ing in filmmaking, in more ways than one. The movie is filmmaking par excellence. Bravura. Kinetic. An overwhelming experience.
But it’s also overwhelmingly profane, breaking the record for the most uses of the f-word in a single film, in addition to a near constant depiction of vices of all kinds: graphic sex, nudity, prostitution, orgies (on planes, yachts, in office buildings), ubiquitous cocaine, every other kind of drug, domestic violence, public masturbation, corporate greed, bribery, securities fraud, money laundering and little people throwing. And that’s just getting started.
What’s a careful Christian to do with a film like this? On the one hand it is hailed as “the most fully realized movie” by one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, while on the other it’s one of the filthiest, most depraved and arguably misogynistic film on screen in recent memory.
Opinions on this question run the gamut, adding to the moral dilemma many face when deciding whether to watch films of this sort.
In a recent piece on The Wolf of Wall Street entitled “Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck,” Trevin Wax of the Gospel Coalition asks: “at what point do we consider a film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable? At what point do we say it is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?”
Wax is responding to my colleague Alissa Wilkinson’s 3.5 out of 4 star review of the film for Christianity Today, which contained a lengthy disclaimer about the film’s content but still called the film “great and possibly terrific … one of the best Scorsese has made in a long while.”
I was conflicted about whether or not to see the film. Scorsese is a brilliant director and I respect the opinions of many of the film critics who praised the film. But I also take the question, “at what point is a film unwatchable?” very seriously. It’s a question I tackle in my book, Gray Matters, in a chapter entitled “Where Do We Draw the Line?”
In the book I discuss examples of my own ongoing journey of discerning that line, as a film critic who sees lots of films that aren’t necessarily pleasant to sit through. I’ve loved films like Breaking the Waves, Requiem for a Dream, and Pulp Fiction, profane and disturbing though they may be. But I’ve also walked out of films like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist because I felt like they went too far.
One argument frequently raised in defence of watching explicit or profane films is that they confront us with truth and force us to see unpleasant realities we might otherwise avoid or prefer not to think about.
In a blog post on The Wolf of Wall Street, film critic Jeffrey Overstreet argues that Scorsese intends not to celebrate evil but to “zoom in and expose evil … the way doctors enlarge x-rays to expose cancer … so that we will be shocked by the reality of it, live in greater awareness about it, avoid it, and avoid contributing to the conditions that make it possible.”
“Where there are evils doing damage, let artists expose them — even if they’re ugly and offensive — rather than allowing them to fester where we don’t see or think about them,” writes Overstreet.
I agree with this and have argued similar things in Gray Matters:
“It would be easy to just avoid art that is difficult, risqué, R-rated; but something about the way the world is (that is: difficult, risqué, R-rated) tells us that to be truthful, art must grapple with the darkness of the world. As filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said, ‘The artist is the one who does not look away.’”
But even as I agree that art is often about “not looking away,” I can’t help but think there are times when “zooming in” on difficult realities is more excessive than it is necessary.
That’s how I feel after watching The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a brilliantly made film with excellent performances. But I didn’t need to see it and probably shouldn’t have. It did not expose evil or enlighten my understanding of the dark side of capitalism any more than dozens of other, less profane films already have (Margin Call, Wall Street, Inside Job), not to mention the evening news. Wolf’s chronicling of depravity doesn’t feel illuminating or groundbreaking as much as it does exhausting and gratuitous.
My hesitance with the “art is an x-ray” defence of explicit films is that I’m not sure whether we need the x-ray in order to sufficiently grasp sordid realities. Reading books, articles, travelling, or just living eyes-wide-open in this world makes one aware. Do we really need to watch The Wolf of Wall Street to be aware of humanity’s depravity?
If anything, I wish there were more films that zoomed-in on the opposite: realities of goodness and beauty that our cynical, jaded age is more apt to miss. Films like Short Term 12, Blood Brother, To the Wonder, This is Martin Bonner or Museum Hours are examples of x-ray films in the best sense, showing us signs of life and light in the midst of the cancerous dark.