Scorsese's true crime filmography is all about bad, unrepentant men who pay for their crimes, though they don't all pay the same amount. Henry Hill is busted and goes into witness protection, and normalcy for him is the worst kind of prison. But he also blasted his way through murder and drugs and corruption and adultery and got a clean slate out of it on the government's dollar. Ace Rothstein didn't give a damn who he upset in his pursuit of power, and he came out pretty much where he started: making book, making money, and working in the machine. Jordan Belfort is a natural extension of these guys: he's awful, proud, unrepentant, evil, and devoted above all to his own pleasure. And in the end, he spends a couple years playing tennis in prison before emerging to become an author and motivational speaker. In other words, with these movies, Scorsese is telling stories about criminals who become, in a real way, too big to fail. They're bad guys who do bad things, but because they do *so many* bad things, they can sacrifice some of their own to reduce their own suffering at the hands of the judicial system. This is worse than getting away with it: this is getting caught and then not getting punished. It's a lot more worrisome.
Yet The Wolf of Wall Street is so toxic and gruesome because it's not about some subset, some kind of "other" that we can tell ourselves we don't know. These aren't old-school guys killing out of some perverted sense of Sicilian honor. This is the system we built to run our country. This is the machine we worship. We can watch Henry Hill rise and fall and get a thrill from both parts of the journey because we know we're not like him. But Jordan Belfort? That's who so many of us want to be. He scammed his way into the fortune that we tell ourselves is the American Dream, and the birthright of every citizen hungry enough to claim it. Kids graduate every year and go to law school and business school and medical school because they see dollar signs.
The movie's incredibly well made: powerful, enervating, nauseating, graphic, ugly, gripping. Everything you'd expect from Scorsese (who is 71 and still throwing serious heat). And it's as hard to watch as Scorsese seems to have intended it to be. He has the skill to make the characters' excess come across as morally and spiritually degrading. And he keeps shoving everything in our face. This is a hard three hours, and so many scenes play out in uncomfortable, angry length. The final shot, of a crowd of eager middle-class people attending Belfort's seminar, is a blatant indictment of our lust for power and the way we worship guys like this, though it's hard to not wonder if Scorsese isn't putting himself in that crowd, too. After all, he made the movie. He turned this guy into a character in his filmography. What does it say about us that we hate these guys but still can't look away?