3) Keeping A Distance: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Even though breaking the fourth wall is a device technically designed to overcome the barrier between character and spectator, it is possible to use it in order to create exactly the opposite dynamic.
Director Martin Scorsese came under some serious fire when The Wolf of Wall Street was first released, with critics accusing him of glorifying Jordan Belfort’s horrendously hedonistic lifestyle. But these critics clearly hadn’t listened carefully enough to Belfort himself, because the narration here is actually an extremely clever use of fourth wall removal.
Throughout The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort invites us along to watch the non-stop parade of drugs, sex and excess that is his life, but we are not expected to actually get involved ourselves. Belfort’s describing of the drugs he takes, or his throwing the glass of orange juice over his shoulder as he walks towards the camera (which takes with it any last vestige of a flying f—k Belfort might be mistaken to give) is specifically intended to make the audience retain a degree of objectivity about Belfort’s debauchery and amorality.
Jordan is, essentially, one of those friends with whom a night out is less likely to end with a pleasant farewell, and more likely to end in prison, hospital, or the bottom of a ditch somewhere in Iowa. And we, the audience, in this situation are those friends who agree to go out, but who then stand in the corner all night, silently judging everything in sight. Whereas Belfort is clearly so absorbed in the immediate benefits of his life that he is ignorant to the consequences of his actions, the audience are not. We remain at a distance – often entertained, but equally appalled, and sometimes even faintly disgusted, at his behaviour. Both of these positions were Scorsese’s exact intention, and it is crucial to this masterpiece that this is understood.
We’ll just stay here with our single gin and tonic, thanks.
In terms of breaking the fourth wall in order to specifically repulse the audience, there is another example that is so extreme it makes Jordan Belfort look like Ghandi. This is Stanley Kubrick’s infamous A Clockwork Orange.
The break in the fourth wall is actually the very first shot of the movie. It appears straight after the title, and cuts immediately to the face of main character Alex (Malcolm MacDowell), who is looking directly into the camera. His face is a grim, pallid, sinister leer. The shot then gradually pulls out to reveal Alex and the rest of his ‘droogs’ sitting in the eerily weird ‘bar’ – where milk is the only beverage and the tables are provided by the porcelained bodies of naked women – preparing for another night of pillage, violence and casual rape.
Even as the rest of the room – unsettling in its own right – comes into view, the tracking shot never leaves Alex’s face. The point is to frighten and repel us, and to give the audience a sense of the latent threat and unadulterated viciousness of this man, even before we have seen the evidence. We are afraid both as viewers – and on behalf of the innocent people upon whom he is about to unleash his depravity.