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The Departed Goes for Baroque

October 17, 2006

The Departed is wildly entertaining, but I’m not sure I bought a minute of it.

It’s been praised as a return to form for director Martin Scorsese but return to form of what? Scorsese’s great gangster movies from the ’70s and early ’90s were tightly controlled personal narratives grounded in psychological and social realism; The Departed is a sprawling, baroque melodrama. It has more in common with Face/Off than GoodFellas.

( Talented Mr. Ripley + Face/Off )

÷

Scarface

= The Departed

Based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, The Departed’s premise is rich in dramatic potential, if not realism: two boys from South Boston become state troopers. One, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is bred by Boston’s biggest mobster, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), to be Costello’s eyes on the inside; the other, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes deep undercover to infiltrate Costello’s crew. The irony is that the bad guy, Sullivan, is well-bred and gentle, a classic bureaucrat, while the good guy, Costigan, is violent and emotionally unstable.

While the Oscar clip scenes belong to Nicholson and DiCaprio, the best acting is done by Damon. Not only is he one of two actors in the movie who have a good handle on the Boston accent (Mark Wahlberg is the other), of the three leads, he is the only one whose performance felt real. He tells us more about his character in a brief look of panic followed by a cover-up smile than Leo does in a whole sequence of histrionic pill-popping or the great Jack does in a weighty monologue on the vagaries of trust. Unlike Costigan, Sullivan seems genuinely attracted to his double life as a cop.

Jack steals any scene he’s in, but he’s not playing a human, he’s playing a monster. Frank Costello is no more a product of our reality than The Joker; in both cases, Nicholson is playing a remorseless super-villain who gets off on other’s suffering. While you can argue that makes him similar to DeNiro’s or Pesci’s characters in GoodFellas, there’s a difference.

In GoodFellas, the characters rationalize their viciousness as a necessary compromise to the demands of their business. They isolate their criminality from their conscience by adopting a view that if they don’t shoot first, the other guy will. But when they’re at home with their wives or mothers, they’re different people. But Costello makes no such divisions in his life; indeed, his life is devoid of tenderness. His girlfriend is a back-talking witch who doesn’t seem to mind taking part in coke-addled threesomes with Costello. When the gangsters in GoodFellas kill somebody, they get pissed that they have to cart the body upstate to bury it, and occasionally puke over the smell. When Costello kills somebody, he plays with the severed hand while eating breakfast.

If Jack is going for a kind of Shakespearean gravitas and Damon is going for Hitchkockian understatedness, DiCaprio, as always, is aiming to be the next Brando. He’s not bad–which is more than can be said for his performance in Gangs of New York–and his newly adopted physique makes this the most physically believable performance of his career. But DiCaprio’s limitations as an actor, his inability to project emotions subtly, prevent Scorsese from mining the role of Costigan for its full potential.

In a superior movie like Donnie Brasco, we saw Johnny Depp’s character get so absorbed in his undercover work as a gangster that his personality began to transform. But Leo’s character never enjoys what he does, or even improperly takes out his aggressions. I don’t think he even kills anyone. Despite being immersed in an environment that encourages his most violent and immoral tendencies, Costigan’s moral purity is never sullied.

It’s not that he doesn’t get emotional or angry–far from it–but he never is remotely seduced by the power and riches on offer from Costello. The pain he feels is not the pain of self-doubt or the temptation of corruption, but simply bad workplace stress. He’s tortured over living a dual life, and he pops Oxycontins and Valiums to dull the pain (although, unlike in GoodFellas, Scorsese never does anything with the repercussions of his addiction). The irony here is that Costigan seems too emotional to be an effective undercover cop. Before he’s offered the assignment, Sgt. Dignam berates him for his shady family history, and Costigan seethes and pouts. Why would the police want to put someone so sensitive on a job that seems to require pinpoint emotional control?

But this taps into a larger problem with The Departed. For a movie by a director who in the past was obsessed with understanding the motivations of extraordinary men–think Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ for starters–there are major gaps in motivation for all three of his lead characters. It’s never clear why Sullivan feels such a loyalty to Costello; the only debt we know he owes to Costello is a couple bags of groceries Costello bought for his grandmother when he was a kid.

A scene follows showing that Sullivan was a henchman for Costello from an early age. But if that’s the case, how is now so polished? And how is it that his record is squeaky clean and the state troopers are completely unaware of any connection between him and Costello, but they put the screws to Costigan because his dead uncle was a bookie?

Nothing Costello does ever seems motivated, except by some demonic thirst for blood and power. Costello offers an explanation for himself in two scenes: at the very beginning of the movie, he says, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” And later, in a conversation with Costigan, he tells him he doesn’t need the money, he doesn’t need the pussy, he just wants the power. That’s all fine, and history is not short of insatiable power-hungry megalomaniacs, but they all had their insecurities. Stalin had his paranoia, Hitler had his sexual inadequacy, serial killers often are painfully shy, but Costello, his only insecurity is that there’s a rat in his crew–and unlike Stalin, his paranoia is justified.

I also never quite understood why Costello takes Costigan under his wing. It’s not that Costello’s not suspicious–there’s a great scene where Costello’s head thug rebreaks Costigan’s already bandaged wrist to see if he’ll admit he’s a cop–but it’s never clear what Costello has to gain by adding Costigan to his crew. Costigan is not only a newcomer to the neighborhood, he doesn’t even hide his past in the police academy.

One way Scorsese and his screenwriter, William Monahan, could have bridged this credibility gap would have been to have Costigan share insider information on the state troopers with Costello. Not only would this have given Costello more of a rationale for taking Costigan in, it would have deepened and complicated the film’s exploration of the themes of loyalty, trust and justice. How interesting would it have been if Costigan’s knowledge of the cops got Costello and his crew out of a potential jam?

All that being said, if you don’t judge The Departed by the high narrative standards of previous Scorsese gems, the movie is damn entertaining. Scorsese’s old fave, The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” kickstarts the movie, but the Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” is the soundtrack for the most exciting scenes.

No responsible review of The Departed can omit how much damn fun Alec Baldwin is as Ellerby, one of the state trooper higher-ups. Thank God for David Mamet; if it weren’t for his relevatory casting of Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, we never would have realized that there’s no one better on the planet at making profane arrogance funny than Alec Baldwin.

The Departed also has the kind of twistiness you would want from this kind of cross-and-double-cross caper, like a scene where Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) goes to meet with Costigan, and cops who don’t know about Costigan’s assignment take the meeting as a sign that Queenan is corrupt. Later, when a mobster dies and his body is found in the marshes by Fenway, the local news reports that he was really a state trooper–which Costello considers a decoy to make him think he no longer has a rat in his crew. (As usual, he’s right.)

But for a movie that centers around two double agents (and includes the belated appearance of several others), The Departed doesn’t explore the opportunities for crosses and double crosses thoroughly enough. Sure, all sorts of rats are smoked out in the shocking conclusion, but it’s so over-the-top that most of the audience at the showing I attended were giggling. But while Scorsese gets points for jolting our expectations in the movie’s final minutes, he should be ashamed of the purposeless mess that is the final showdown between Costello and the cops.

I had a screenwriting teacher in college who said a telltale sign that a screenwriter has lost his way is when he culminates a movie’s rising action with a fleet of police cars and a shootout. And whaddaya know, that’s how Costello goes down. There’s even a scene of a car exploding for no good reason. (At least neither DiCaprio nor Damon runs away from it in slow motion.)

I’m tempted to say there’s intention to this pulpy madness, that The Departed is Scorsese’s stab at Scarface-like cult success. But ever since he started working with DiCaprio, he’s moved further away from the moral ambiguity and psychological complexity that characterized his best work, and more into the world of mainstream myth-making, centered on clearly defined heroes and villains. But unlike his contemporaries Spielberg and Lucas, Scorsese was always at his best working in shades of grey, not in black and white. But now that he’s made a movie with a villain no less sinister than The Joker and a hero no more conflicted than Batman, Scorsese may finally be saying, “Fuck the critics. Show me the money.”

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    October 17, 2006 8:16 pm

    i couldn’t agree more. monahan’s script has some tremendous dialogue (my personal favorite- wahlberg saying to a fellow cop- I’m the guy who does his job… you’re the other guy) but is almost completely lacking in psychological realism. and when there are attempts to round out a character’s psyche, they fall flat, such as the inexplicable sex scene with nicholson or dicaprio’s monologues with the shrink. and speaking of the shrink, i’m fairly certain they could have written her part out entirely without losing anything of significance. and scorcese’s direction seemed a little choppy to me (too much cutting between dicaprio’s situation and damon’s) and there were scenes which had me completely confused, which is really inexcusable, since this was pretty faithful to infernal affairs, which i have seen. all that being said, i still loved it and while absolutely watch it again and again on tv, it’s just that it’s in no way, shape, or form a return to form for scorcese.

    postscript- it’s interesting that you point out the laughter during one of the final scenes, the audience i was in had the same exact reaction. i wonder if it’s not so much laughter at the implausibility/over-the-topness of the scene as much as it a nervous reaction to so many shocking events one right after another

  2. October 17, 2006 11:25 pm

    Yeah, I didn’t even get into the shrink. While I respect that Scorsese didn’t cast a timeless beauty in the role–she was genuinely believable as a shrink–I didn’t remotely buy her attraction to DiCaprio’s character. Monahan couldn’t even figure out how to write a persuasive scene putting the two together, so Scorsese ends up cutting from DiCaprio in the doorway at her house to the two of them making out. Further, if DiCaprio is so concerned about not blowing his cover, what the F is he doing going to a shrink at police headquarters? That won’t look suspicious?

    It’s interesting that you point out that Scorsese’s direction seemed a little choppy; I’ve noticed in his last couple movies that there have been some awkward cuts and some funky sound editing. I wonder if since he started making big-budget epics that have immovable release dates if he’s had a problem finishing his films in time.

    As for the laughter issue, I have to disagree, and here’s why: nobody laughed when DiCaprio, a character we care about, was shot. Everyone was stunned. And nobody laughed when Damon’s no-name buddy killed Anthony Anderson. Only when Damon shot the no-name guy did people laugh; it wasn’t the shock, indeed, I’d say the guy’s death was almost suspected. I laughed–and I assume others did–because it was just getting ridiculous.

  3. Jef Tiff permalink
    October 18, 2006 5:12 pm

    I totally agree that the shrink was not important at all. Plus, whose baby was she carrying, Matt’s or Leo’s? And why on earth would any professional shrink give in to a patient’s threats, give him drugs, fire him as a patient and then decide to date him while she’s already in a relationship. This is not Sex and the City!
    And, perhaps the only thing she could have been useful for would have been to help me understand for sure whose side Marky Marky was on at the end when he finally caps Damon. At least to me, it was not clear if he was working for Costello or acting as a vigilante cop on suspension. Would it not help for us to know if he let her live (vigilante cop) or killed her in the apartment too (Costello crony)? Instead we’re left with that stupid shot of the rat. That said, I enjoyed it.
    Also, my theater laughed at the same point as well.

  4. Juan permalink
    October 18, 2006 8:29 pm

    For me, the rapid crosscutting between Damon’s and DiCaprio’s scenes really hurt the movie. Just when I was really getting into a sequence between Damon and his shrink girlfriend, off the movie would go to DiCaprio, only to return to Damon and the shrink a few seconds later, still in the same situation. Why not just let a sequence play out and gain full dramatic strength?

    The movie is good, but not nearly as good as the reviews suggested.

  5. Brad Glaser permalink
    October 28, 2006 6:45 am

    To address one of MOWC’s questions, Costigan is going to the shrink at police HQ because she handles parolees as well as cops. This is established beforehand in the date scene with Sullivan. As part of his cover is that he is on parole from the assault charge, he has to attend the sessions.

  6. Brad Glaser permalink
    October 28, 2006 1:37 pm

    Okay, I think i liked The Departed more than any of you did. Let me see if I can take a shot at explaining why. I think many people are viewing this too much through the lens of being a Scorsese film. Was it as real or as gritty as his best work? No. Does that necessarily make it any less of a great film? I don’t think so.

    I felt rather than attempting to “return to form,” this is Scorsese attempting to do something new (for him) and to my mind succeeding. I think this is Scorsese’s first post-Tarantino crime film. It has a sensibility of graphic violence mixed with a certain sly humor and element of camp that I think is clearly inspired by “Resevoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” The editing is also reflective of some of Tarantino’s work, with more intercuts between scenes and even some subtle timeline manipulation. (The scene in the psychiatrist’s apartment, for example, clearly takes place before she moves into Sullivan’s apartment, which we’ve already seen.)

    While I have not seen “Infernal Affairs,” it is interesting that Scorsese even draws his material from an HK crime film, a genre known to be a Tarantino favorite. Rather than looking back, I think Scorsese proves here his vitality and relevance as a filmmaker, taking his old genre and reimagining it through a different lens.

  7. November 8, 2006 12:06 am

    OK, it’s taken me a while, but I am finally responding to your comments, Brad.

    I don’t think you’re entirely wrong; I think there is was something intentional about his approach, that it wasn’t simply a master losing it, and it was probably influenced by the Tarantino revolution. That being said, what’s the point?

    If Scorsese is in some way responding to Tarantino, how is he doing it? Certainly movie violence became more explicit and over-the-top with Pulp Fiction, but Scorsese was doing explicit violence in relative obscurity back in the early ’70s. Scorsese didn’t need to ratchet up the violence to shock the modern moviegoer; he’d been ratcheting up for 30 years.

    The second major Tarantino innovation was the introduction of a pop culture-savvy kind of dialogue. Not sure I see any of that in The Departed (not that Scorsese would really know how to do it; his taste in movies and music is firmly grounded in the ’60s, and I doubt he’s ever watched TV).

    The third major Tarantino innovation was, for lack of a better term, plot twistiness. Yes, Scorsese is juggling multiple narratives in The Departed, more so than he did in his earlier works, but he’s been doing this since The Age of Innonence in 1993, which came out a year earlier than Pulp Fiction. And I don’t see how the approach of showing multiple simultaneous, overlapping narratives is any different than what he did in Casino in 1995, which was filmed and written before Pulp Fiction came out.

    And even if you can detect something about the plotting that is post-Tarantinoesque, I’m not sure that it’s a particular virtue of the film. I was completely unaware that the scene you mentioned occurred out-of-sequence, and as bro, another astute movie-watcher has noted, sometimes it was difficult to keep track of what was going on. I also think that dense and fast-paced plotting can be a cheap and easy way to gloss over character motivation. By the time you try to sort out why so-and-so shot so-and-so, the movie is long over.

    There’s nothing wrong with going popcorn, I guess, but I don’t think anyone would question that Scorsese was a better filmmaker when he was doing psychological realism.

Trackbacks

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