The scariest thing visiting movie theaters in 2013 had nothing to do with demonic possession or telekinesis. It was just money, and how it moves from pocket to pocket in America and abroad.
In Martin Scorsese’s big, rowdy, sinister comedy The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio’s sleazy salesman Jordan Belfort bilks hungry investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. He spends that money binging on drugs, prostitutes, and the helicopter rides that bring him home from such leisurely activities. Meanwhile, he escapes anything resembling punishment for his misdeeds, since the two-year prison term he serves comes off as little more than time off at a golf club.
We never see the victims of Belfort’s schemes in The Wolf of Wall Street. They remain outside the margins of the film in the same way that they are of no consequence to Belfort himself. This is a sticking point for some of the film’s detractors who argue that Wolf luxuriates in criminal misbehavior, worships the antics of a soulless villain, and can influence susceptible audiences to follow in Belfort’s hard-bottom footsteps.
I won’t argue that aspects of Belfort’s lifestyle aren’t appealing. Who wouldn’t dream of spoiling a supermodel wife on a private yacht worthy of Jay Z? In the film, Belfort himself admits that he’s selling an image of luxury and unbridled entertainment—an all too familiar vision of the pursuit of happiness—to motivate his employees. They should want to live like him. That same image likely appealed to Belfort’s victims as well as those straw man audience members willing to ignore the hollowness of his drug-addled existence so that they could pursue his riches.
As for whether Scorsese ignores Belfort’s victims, I would argue that they exist on the periphery of The Wolf of Wall Street, unpronounced but certainly haunting the frame.
But if you really need to see the flip side of Belfort’s charade, 2013 provided plenty of other great movies to serve such a purpose. Just take a look at Alexander Payne’s bittersweet, black-and-white comedy Nebraska, where the excessive wealth fabricated by Wall Street contrasts the flat, destitute looking American heartland, drained of color, if not life.
In Payne’s film, '70s legend Bruce Dern plays a nonplus old man who has been taken advantage of by friends and family, has little to show for his work, dreams of buying a new air compressor, and is taken for a ride by the promise of a million dollar sweepstakes. If The Wolf of Wall Street is an excessive film depicting the monsters created by capitalism, Nebraska is a spare film offering up the working class citizens left in the dust by an economic system that rewards greed.
Wolf and Nebraska are both pieces of a bigger picture served up by the best films of 2013, a year that took a clinical and cynical look at capitalism from various angles, taking the economic system to task half-a-decade after the recession. If you were looking for the most persuasive villain of 2013, don’t bother with any one individual and consider instead the ideals that created Jordan Belfort as well as the murderous bodybuilders in Pain & Gain and the star struck thieves in The Bling Ring. All of these characters are based on real people looking for a bigger piece of the pie with a sense of entitlement born and raised on American values. They want what we want, only they have the insatiable drive and moral flexibility to go out and get it.
On the opposite end, we have the titular characters of Frances Ha and Inside Llewyn Davis. Unlike Belfort and his ilk, making honest art instead of money drives both Frances and Llewyn. They suffer for it, since capitalism drives such sincere pursuits too, and few people see any value in the art they have to offer. Frances and Llewyn crash on couches like charity cases while working odd jobs at the bottom of the economic spectrum. When Llewyn finely gets the opportunity to pour his heart out in an audition, the reaction he gets is both crushing and unsurprising: “I don’t see any money here.”
Perhaps no other film from last year contemplates the gap between capitalism and art, and the skewed way we as a culture anoint value, as brilliantly as Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours. Set in Vienna, the film follows a museum security guard and a Canadian woman who is visiting for the sake of a sick cousin. Both meet cute at the museum and bond over their appreciation of the paintings on display.
On the surface, the film is little more than conversations about art and life, subjects where capitalism should steer clear. Yet the way economics pervade these discussions are telling. The characters gaze over paintings from ancient eras, often considering how and why these artifacts are considered priceless. Art resists the value system of capitalism. However, numbers dictate and define the onlookers, whether it’s the figures in their bank account or the hours they have remaining. Cohen slyly leaves that sick cousin off screen, instead forcing us to stare long and hard at a monitor reading her pulse. She is replaced by a numeric measurement.
The anger towards capitalism is perhaps most deeply felt in A Touch of Sin, Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s ferocious and poetic look at the corruption in his homeland’s shift from communism. The mosaic film follows four separate working class characters who feel the immediate widening gap between the haves and have nots and react with epic violence. These stories are based on true events. The irony here is that while China boasts an economic boom, the money flows up, the rich get richer and the poor… well, you get the picture.
Even the year’s Oscar frontrunner, 12 Years a Slave, makes room for economics. Many critics have noted director Steve McQueen’s artfully distant, seemingly dispassionate approach to the cruelty onscreen. He composes lush visuals of hangings and whippings, without really allowing us to identify with the victims. I believe that distance serves two purposes. For one, McQueen’s art denies us the opportunity to identify with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s free man turned slave Solomon Northup, because that would make things far too easy for the audience. We cannot and should not even pretend to identify with slavery from our privileged positions. Instead, we’re positioned as witnesses, who observe a system as it functions. In that regard, we are closer to the slavers, like the one played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is only as sympathetic to Solomon as his wallet allows him to be.
McQueen’s artful distance spells out the bigger picture, observing how slavery is a well-oiled machine created by and benefiting capitalism. The film details the trade: the wholesale and shipment of human capital; the value anointed to particular men and women based on age, size, sex, and pigment; the mortgages used to purchase slaves; and the returns on such investments. The only reason Solomon is spared from death in one crucial moment is because there is a mortgage on his life. If nothing else, 12 Years a Slave is a textbook on how the economic model of the south is a founding father of American capitalism.
If you care to see what those early economics have developed into today, try this double bill. Follow 12 Years a Slave with the film Complex chose as the year’s best: Spring Breakers. The two films work well together as a then and now of how racism can be functional to capitalism.
Harmony Korine’s dizzying, neon-lit look at new age capitalism is all about the images we consume, where sex and violence are commodities. Disney alum Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens star among the four white college girls who couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to a lecture on the civil rights movement because they're looking to the south for Spring Break instead. They rob a diner, head to Florida, soak up the sun, and misbehave in a sea of writhing white bodies. We consume these sparkly images while they consume ample amounts of drugs, presumably supplied by the black drug dealers who are nowhere to be seen. At first.
The racial division in Spring Breakers doesn’t end there. In the new capitalist model, even black culture (or at least the rap-influenced styles that are stereotypically attributed to black culture) are for sale. That includes hip-hop music, braids, James Franco’s grill and that tanning oil his character Alien is so proud of. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody pointed out that by the time we reach the climax, the film uses black light to make the girls’ skin darker, allowing them to be black for the moment. Unfortunately, tanning oil and black light does no such favors for Gucci Mane’s drug kingpin.
The privilege of being white, according to Spring Breakers, is that you can purchase being black and then get a full refund, returning to the safety of suburbia after you’ve consumed to your heart’s (or libido’s) desire. (The girls make their phone calls to home after the massacre; you can see Archie's orange Lambo parked nearby.) The opposite doesn’t hold true for the African Americans in the film.
Like Solomon Northup who plays his violin for the merriment of his slavers, the African Americans in Spring Breakers supply spring break with drugs and rich musical culture, but they still aren’t invited to join the twerking white bodies. I’m here reminded of a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street, where there’s a party full of white people on Belfort’s yacht, waving their arms in the air to Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray.” It’s a moment where you could credit Belfort for living by the defining, capitalist’s mantra of 2013, so eloquently stated by James Franco’s Alien: “Look at my shit!”
Radheyan Simonpillai (or Rad as we like to call him) is a Toronto-based freelance film critic with an M.A. in Cinema Studies, which basically means he will quote some guy named Kracauer when discussing Tyler Perry. He tweets at @FreshandFrowsy.