The Wolf of Wall Street is a biographical dark comedy that follows the life of criminal stock broker, Jordan Belfort. The presence of animals in the film draws attention to human-animal relationships and their differences. More specifically, this scene uses a goldfish to highlight these differences, as well as the film’s message about the greed and ignorance of the men working in Wall Street.
The scene is set in Jordan’s office. We are first made aware that a fish is present when Jordan says, ‘what the fuck is that kid doing?’, to which the shot switches to a mid-shot of a man with a fish bowl, panning down to him cleaning it. The mid-shot of Jordan beforehand captures his stern facial expression, implying that this is unusual for him to see in his office. This is one of the first indicators of the human-animal relationships in the film; Jordan’s aggressive nature somewhat reflects his ‘wolf’ side, which sees the lines between human and animal become blurred.
The mise en scene in the scene is important in its presentation of animals. The office equipment and business men in the background, in addition to the diegetic sound of people talking and phone rings, makes it clear that the fish is out of place in this environment. This is metaphorical and places the fish ‘out of water’. This is also a reflection of the fish owner, who is also clearly out of his depth in the office, which not only sees similarities between him and the animal, but it also contrasts other characters, particularly Jordan and Donnie.
Donnie becomes aggressive, as shown in the close-up shot where he forcefully grabs the man by his shirt; his shouting takes over the scene and silences the diegetic background noise. This sudden change in Donnie’s mood, from calm to angry, shows how he sees himself as superior to the fish, and that animals do not belong in certain ‘human’ places. This consequently draws attention the control the men in this environment have, and the hyper-masculine image they aim to live up to.
After this, Donnie takes the fish bowl and stands on a desk; both long and close-up shots are used, drawing attention to him and others in the office. Like earlier in the scene, the fish is clearly passive, however, it is still important because it reveals more about characters in the film, which draws attention to key themes in the film such as, greed. Donnie says, ‘this is what happens when you fuck with your pets on new issue day’ before eating the live fish in front of the whole office; the shot then pans to the rest of the office, who are clapping and cheering.
Whilst this is explicit, because eating a live fish is considered taboo, it is ironic because the goldfish, an animal that is both small and passive, is used as device to emphasise the theme of greed, which here, is all-consuming. Furthermore, the ignorance of Donnie, and others in the office, is evident as their lack of care towards the fish and its death pushes viewers to think of the things that are not allowed or accepted in this environment, particularly Wall Street. The fish’s passiveness is a representation of domestic life, which opposes the men here, who are hyper-masculine and obsessed with money. Their treatment of the fish therefore shows that to fit in at Wall Street, the men must fit these more aggressive standards of masculinity.
Donnie’s actions, and the office’s positive reaction, emphasise how they will do anything so that the business makes money, regardless of the consequences; this also demonstrates how this work environment is a place where everyone celebrates brutish acts like this. Furthermore, the reactions of others in the office highlights how insensitive humans are when considering the lives of animals; because they cheer and clap, the ill-treatment of animals is clearly being praised, rather than questioned.