Bad Meaning Good: Why America Loves Watching Criminals


Jordan Belfort, a selfish, unfaithful, dishonest, drug-addicted schmuck of a criminal played masterfully by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, remains almost completely unrepentant throughout the duration of the three-hour film. Despite all the cheating and abhorrent behavior (at one point, he flippantly transitions from talking about a colleague’s suicide with, “Anyway…”), movie-goers still loved to watch and root for him to succeed.

Irving Rosenfeld, the overweight, comb-over aficionado conman at the center of American Hustle, isn’t as attractive as Belfort (sorry Christian Bale) or as delightfully magnetic, but he’s still the clear audience favorite over brash FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper).

Cinematic criminals come and go, and with a range of personalities. See: the heroically easily-likable crooks of the Ocean’s trilogy, the power-obsessed goons of Scarface and The Godfather or the complete psychopath at the center of American Psycho. There’s a reason they tend to become iconic characters.

Sure, it’s enthralling to look at how the 1% live, with their huge mansions, expensive cars and raucous parties, but that’s only part of it. These films provide a fantastical outlet for viewers; imaginary worlds where we can indulge our most basic instincts and even experience the bizarre pleasure of watching the distressing trials of another. And by the end of the movie, when the criminals are in jail or have suffered the most, we’ll (theoretically) be encouraged to stay out of trouble.

Wolf’s Jordan Belfort is the best kind of conman. A smooth talking, attractive devil who can sell you anything he wants (though he would prefer something that makes him a lot of money). We want to believe him, but that doesn’t even matter to enjoy the film. He takes us on a whirlwind of yachts, drugs, cash, orgies and adventures; the ride can’t possibly continue like this forever, but it’ll be fun while it lasts.

Hustle’s Irving Rosenfeld is much more grounded in reality. We can’t follow him on a money-fueled rampage because, well, he’s more of a working class conman than Belfort. Instead, the FBI puts enough pressure and shoves enough problems in his face that we begin to identify with his situation.

Audiences forget about the money Rosenfeld stole from unsuspecting victims in the beginning of the film, and, in its place, focus their attentions on his suffering. As Christian Bale told VIBE: “Nobody looks at themselves as a bad guy… Everyone can justify what they’re doing and that’s what we’re trying to bring the audience in.”

Mathew McConaughey cameo as Mark Hanna, The Wolf’s greedy CEO mentor, is enthralling because of his blatant candor spitting advice about daily masturbation, cocaine use and making as much money as possible. We’re able to enjoy the fantasy of life as a high-powered Wall Streeter and the additional satisfaction of seeing him get his comeuppance. We know the consequences for his meteoric rise are imminent and, likewise, the resultant proof will be our justification for working slowly and steadily (and legally) to rise to the top.

The threat of repercussion is a critical element of movies about criminals. We can identify with them and revel in their devious practices, and maybe we can even accept that sometimes a bit of ruthlessness is necessary or that good people can turn evil. AMC’s Breaking Bad brought us all the way from mild-mannered to murderous, and we still accepted Walter White (of course, there were usually “worse” villains to root against). It comforts us to know bad things happen to bad people. We want to believe that.

Americans like to watch criminals tangle with The Man, but at the end of the day, we want justice. The criminals can have their fun, but sooner or later justice must present itself and hold the criminals (or those deemed most villainous) accountable. Mark Hanna loses his entire company, and Walter White loses his entire life. Justice takes a different meaning in American Hustle as Rosenfeld the conman becomes the hero and the FBI becomes the villain. Audiences accept this because they sympathize with Rosenfeld and find the FBI’s tactics distasteful.

On the other hand, Wolf has received more than a bit of backlash for the minimal amount of punishment Belfort receives in relation to the enormity of his crimes. When The Wolf finally gets sent to jail, he’s pictured carefree and playing tennis. Not the traditional downfall we may have expected, but perhaps because of the insane excesses of his life, a drop to mere normalcy is an appropriate punishment.

In criminal movies, we get to live inside a world of fantasy and indulgence for a couple hours. Then reality steps in and reminds us that crime is bad and paying taxes is good and to work hard and call your mother once a week. So we’ll leave the theater happy that we’re on the correct side of the law and happy everything wrapped up nicely. Our criminalistic fantasies satisfied, we’ll now be content to live within society’s accepted standards for another week – or at least until the next criminal movie arrives in theaters. —Dominick Grillo