A Tale of the Manifold Americas

The other night, I watched two films back to back, ‘the Wolf of Wall St’, and ‘Out of the Furnace.’

I rarely have the time or inclination to do such, but it made for an interesting contrast. The first film, ‘Out of the Furnace’, starring Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Forest Whitaker, is a stark and grim depiction of urban decay. The small town of Braddock, PA, is dying a slow death, its fortunes inexorably tied to the steel mill which is now shutting down.

This is a story of two down-and-out brothers, Rodney (Casey Affleck) and Russell Baze (Christian Bale). Rodney is an Iraq war vet on a self-destructive downward spiral, unable to extract himself from the war, to deal with the utter mundanity of working a shitty 9 to 5 job after the exhilarating and traumatic experiences he had as a soldier. He gambles and gets himself in deep debt to local bookie and small-time crim John Petty, who puts him to work in underground bare knuckle fighting rings.

Russell, the older brother, is in no better shape. A solid, hard-working man, he is used to cleaning up after his younger brother,  until one night he can’t anymore: tipsy from a meeting Rodney failed to show up to, he drives home under the influence, and is involved in an accident. He winds up in jail for a few years, leaving Rodney to fend for himself. The difference between the brothers is rooted in their psychology, in the way we react to hardship: Russell buckles down, gets the work done. It might not pay much, but the satisfaction of doing good work is what holds him together.

Rodney, on the other hand, disdains work. Disdains a society that he finds goes out of its way to ignore him, that doesn’t recognise and belittles his sacrifice. Nothing illustrates this contrast better than the scene in which Russell comes home from prison for the first time – he finds the house in great disrepair, and immediately sets about fixing the place. Rodney comes home, freshly bruised and busted from his last fight, and says, deadpan, “The place looks great.” The point of this film isn’t the recession, isn’t the treatment of war vets, isn’t any of the tentative political touches – it’s right here, in the painful, pulsing moments between two brothers, two great actors.

Casey Affleck and Christian Bale do an outstanding job in bringing new meaning and heat to familiar material. Their scenes together are mesmerising; Affleck’s tortured physicality, his wounded eyes, and Bale’s deep-seated sadness, his disappointment so constant its woven into his skin, clash whenever they meet. Briefly then, the cloud is lifted. Their melancholy fades behind genuine camaraderie, behind fleeting joy. This ultimately dour film is not saved by its performances, but is definitely rendered memorable thanks to them.

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Directly after watching that, I saw ‘The Wolf of Wall St’, a bright, jaunty visual feast that couldn’t have been more different, and as such was the perfect companion piece and antidote to, Out of the Furnace.

Scorsese’s latest effort offers up the true story of Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo Dicaprio, a young stocks trader on Wall St who rises to dizzying heights. Sallied with more charisma than he knows what to do with, Belfort sets about conning the financial world by selling penny stocks at a premium. This film isn’t about a bleak, rural America filled with once-good men, inbred hillbillies and drug lords, it’s about the creme de la creme, the wealthy elite and the brilliance of the individual.

Belfort doesn’t just rise to stratospheric heights on the back of his cunning, he drags a whole pack of barely cogent individuals with him and for long stretches of the movie, they indulge in every excess imaginable, and then some – taking decadence  to a level even Caligula would have found embarrassing. And it’s absolutely breathtaking. Breathtaking to see the limits of conscience and morality thrown out the window and jerked-off on for good measure; the sheer bawdiness is shocking in itself. Have there ever been more roles for hookers in a film? Even including pornography, I think you’d be hard pressed to find one.

I frequently found my jaw dropping in shock and delighted laughter taking flight, because the upbeat tone and dazzling colours remained constant – never dipping, not once – brashly rampaging over any death or shocking consequence. In this, Scorsese’s direction is absolutely masterful, his direction giving the narrative the same stunning power and momentum of a long, sustained high and in the process, by denying grief a place, injecting real potency to the tragedy in this comedy. Each momentary blip leaves you grasping for more – wait, he died? She died? They’re gone? What happened?

It doesn’t matter. It didn’t to Belfort – not when the next high was waiting. Meanwhile, the higher he climbed, the greater the potential fall became, the more our anticipation for it grew. This is a visceral, energetic film that powerfully underscores the kind of financial corruption and moral decrepitude that lead to the global recession and gave renewed authenticity to the types of landscapes depicted in Out of the Furnace. What we have here is a tale of two Americas, one replicated within Wolf of Wall St itself in the quiet, dogged determination of the FBI Agent that ultimately takes Belfort down.

There’s a wonderful scene in which Jordan invites FBI Agent Denham, played by Kyle Chandler, out onto his yacht, parading his wealth and influence for all to see. There are semi-clad women, a lobster & seafood spread, a helicopter on the yacht – you name it. The point, Belfort says, is to show he has nothing to hide. He needles Denham, asking him if he heard right that he’d once tried to take a stab at Wall St himself, and if he ever wonders how it could have gone if he’d stayed the course. “You know what,” he says, “when I’m riding home on the subway and my balls are fucking sweating and I’m wearing the same suit three days in a row, yeah, you bet I do. I’ve thought about it before. Who wouldn’t, right?”

This fantastic scene culminates in a not-so-subtle attempted bribe, which ends with all cards being on the table.
Agent Denham comes back at Belfort with this:

“You know Jordan, let me tell you something, most of the Wall St jackasses that I bust, they’re to the manor born, their fathers are douchebags, just like their fathers before them, but you, Jordan, you got this way all on your own.”

“Did I?”

“Good for you, little man.”

And as they’re being kicked off the boat, an enraged Belfort retorts: “Good luck on that subway ride home to your miserable ugly fucking wives. I’m going to have Heidi lick some caviar off my balls in the meantime.”

Toward the very end of the film, with Belfort ruined, we see Agent Denham on his subway ride home; the light is flickering, the carriages rattling, and there is quiet between the diverse range of ordinary passengers. It lasts for less than a minute, as part of a larger montage, but it nonetheless highlights the huge disparity between two very different people, two very different Americas. Now, I had planned to link this portrayal and contrast into a larger piece about the manifold Americas – the one I saw in Lone Survivor, the terrible true story of marines in Afghanistan, depicting the devastation of war with a bruising physicality or the one I saw in August: Osage County, the fading splendour of the South, the stifling heat of grand plains, and the messy sprawl of internecine struggles in large families – but I’ve taken far too long to get to the point, as usual.

There’s no rush. It seems every day there’s a new movie, or new episode, documenting some other small universe within the broader patchwork quilt that is the United States of America, or investigating anew previously explored territory to uncover new meaning. It’s one of the most storied countries in the worlds, a myth-making factory without compare, and it’s the fault-lines, the bleeding edges where these stories and cultures and worlds collide, that I find most inspiring.

 

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