Men are weak-minded, egocentric and, for the most part, doomed to fail. For the past four decades of his career, Martin Scorsese has mined his way through the male psyche, warts and all. To some, he may be known more for the violent braggadocio and swaggering ensembles of Goodfellas and Mean Streets – but where Marty truly shines is in examining the fragility of masculinity. To start the new year, the New Yorker returns with a 25-year passion project: Silence, the story of two Catholic priests who travel to the heart of Japan in search of their mentor – a Heart of Darkness for the god-fearing – a journey that, if history repeats, will be looking inward as much as on the path ahead.
Scorsese’s timeline as a filmmaker can be defined by the two eras in which he found muses in Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio; two of the most skilled actors of the last 50 years, both instilled with the same commitment and delicacy to craft as their director. Mental health, as a subject matter in film, can often be handled poorly, with stigmas left to permeate, but the right director can create beautiful artistic statements while shining a light on issues which needed bringing to the fore. Across films like Shutter Island and the slightly melodramatic misfire of Cape Fear, Scorsese tackled the minds of his leading men head-on. But two completely different stories, separated by nearly 40 years, best showcase his penchant for understated portrayals of deplorable, yet frighteningly human, leads.
In 1976, a short time after the Vietnam War came to an end, tensions at home were rife and hostility reigned (not unlike the scenes that are currently peppering newscasts on a day-to-day basis) on both sides of the Atlantic. It was upon this fractured landscape, this New York, that the Queens-born Scorsese set to shine a light on through the eyes of one Travis Bickle: an ex-marine, honourably discharged, disenfranchised and disappointed by the powers that be. Exhausted, figuratively and literally, he rests his insomnia-riddled mind by taking up work as a taxi driver, working in the twilight of a city past midnight, bleary-eyed and dishevelled, left in the maelstrom of his own misanthropy.
“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain’ll come and wash all this scum off the streets.” As opening salvos go Bickle’s, when describing his view of NYC’s urban sprawl, is particularly striking, cutting like shards of glass through a backdrop of smooth jazz and soft camera focus. These words are acerbic and full of hate, with racist and homophobic tendencies touched on throughout, this monologue is a fitting primer for what’s to transpire through the film’s 115 minutes. His scorn is all-encompassing.
Obsession is a common trope for Scorsese, and it courses through Travis. He stalks Betsy, the early object of his desires, like prey, patrolling the street by her place of work before proclaiming “They. Cannot. Touch. Her,” giving himself a misplaced feeling of ownership to a woman he’s yet to meet. Needless to say, such formative actions don’t a healthy relationship make. Once his priorities switch from Betsy to a want for political change, our lead is awash with visions of delusion that his actions are for the greater good and that to put a bullet into the body of a presidential candidate would bring some comfort to his addled brain. “The thought had been brewing in my mind for a long time – true force.” With no real plan, and a botched execution, his Lee Harvey Oswald moment never comes, his infamy spared.
The solitary piece of common humanity shown by Travis comes with his need to help teenage sex worker Iris (a young Jodie Foster) escape the brothel in which, he feels, she’s enslaved – again, it’s telling that he feels such ownership when it comes to women. Consumed by a need to control, Bickle acts on his urges, and ends up riddled with bullets in one of cinema’s more harrowing shootouts, confronting Harvey Keitel’s pimp Sport with a snub-nose pistol. Driven by an overpowering disdain for his city, obsessed with the need to cleanse its streets, the price for his delusion is paid in his blood.
Almost 40 years later Scorsese showcased a completely different New York City with The Wolf of Wall Street, moving his camera from the underbelly to the elite, to tackle the life of one of Wall Street’s most infamous sons, Jordan Belfort. The playboy stock broker, whose memoirs became a national bestseller, came from humble beginnings, spurred into a job on Wall Street to provide for his wife. Yet the colour of money often makes good men blind. Herein lies a story of greed, addiction and the pursuit of perfection. Like Icarus, Belfort flies too close to the sun, and from such a height came a monumental fall.
After combining with electric results through a four-film stretch across eight years, there was only one person who would be playing Belfort, one talent that could convey the multitude of dimensions possessed by a personality as large as this. Leonardo DiCaprio made his name as The Good Guy, often as the de facto hero for whichever film he appeared in, and it was this charisma that proved necessary to complement the complex and murky morality of The Wolf of Wall Street. At face value Belfort is immensely charming and thoroughly engaging, but through the use of narration we know exactly what he thinks of the people he comes into contact with. When using people to further his own personal gain the line between confidence and arrogance is crossed implicitly.
Jordan Belfort’s rise to prominence is exclusively due to his skills of manipulation, a master salesman who preys on the down-and-outs and their need for a quick fix, gaining their trust and laughing all the way to the bank. This is his world, and we just live in it. His meteoric rise in the world of Wall Street sees him falling foul to all sorts of vices, namely sex and drugs, for a man of such high power, his will is hopelessly weak. Throughout the story Belfort is never content with his lot, and though there is something to be commended about aspirations, he leaves one wife for the next, before driving said marriage into the ground when clouded by his own greed. He cheats, deceives and abuses, and by the time the FBI seizes control of his empire on accusations of fraud, he’s already lost everything.
We see truly abhorrent things from Belfort throughout the film’s three hours, where the only good done is fleeting and true loyalty is reserved for a select few, and what has become an important distinction made by Scorsese throughout his career, is that a depiction is not an endorsement. It’s important to showcase the bad a man can do, but it’s most important to rubber stamp it with a warning.
Through the tail end of the last century and for the first part of this one, Martin Scorsese has proved himself to be a master of combining immense cinematic scope with investigations into the male psyche. But despite the good looks and charisma of his favourite leading men, his films often turn out to be cautionary tales.