Monday, October 09, 2006

The Departed

Marty Departed
by Ryland Walker Knight

Remember when the first time you saw a Martin Scorsese classic and you nearly bounced in your seat giddy, grinning at the screen? It usually happened within the first five minutes: I love the Ronettes!; this city is grimey and disgusting--a real rain, yeah; pool is sexy; did you see how the camera moved in on him into the freeze frame? That sense of cinematic enthusiasm was sustained for the entire picture through to the climax, racing for that finish line you didn't want to see around the bend. Okay, not all the time. By the end of some you're worn out, ready to quit, checking your wristwatch. Even in GOODFELLAS you can feel the weight of the film by the end, all that nihilism and Catholic guilt like heavy drapery on your shoulders, its fringe dusting the floor. Some will argue similar slants against THE DEPARTED but I was thrilled for the entire running time, eager to watch it again as soon as the last reel slipped through the projector. In fact, I'm going back tonight.

Even if, like me, you haven't seen the original Hong Kong film INFERNAL AFFAIRS, you've seen elements of this movie before in nearly any cops and robbers picture. What you haven't seen is this kind of premise. We all know about the duality of men, cops and robbers in particular, but having them impersonate one another to infiltrate the other's world is as exciting an idea as imaginable. I know, there probably is another film outside these two with a similar plot (maybe another blind spot, SERPICO?) but this one is so slick it's easy to forget the past and dive in with our eyes open.

Matt Damon is the ostensible lead since we follow his Colin Sullivan from the first scene to the last, from wide eyed youth to dead eyed adult. His doppleganger, introduced shortly after Colin's youthful prologue, is Leonardo DiCaprio's anger management case, Billy Costigan. Both actors are groomed to look alike and often Scorsese will shoot them from the same angle in sequential scenes to hammer home this point of duality. It's obvious, yes, but like every stylistic choice in this film, an effective one: the pacing is perfect, the use of musical cues is just right (songs are repeated as character themes instead of scoring), and every line of dialogue from the top notch screenplay pops. There's never a dull moment and plenty of hilarious asides from Alec Baldwin (as dufus blow hard Captain Ellerby) and Mark Wahlberg (the ever-angry Staff Sargeant Dignam) to break up the bleak attitude with some comedic punctuation. The entire all star cast is great, including the old guys who work as father figures as well as Chief Good Guy & Evil Mastermind: Martin Sheen's performance as Captain Queenan is the least showy in the picture and helps balance his opposite, the one from all the ads, the one the bigs hope to lure you the paying customers in with, the big bad powerhouse that is Jack Nicholson. Jack doesn't just chew scenary in this picture, he's stuffing his face letting the juices drip all over his goatee. At this point in his career it's hard for Jack to play it straight, without irnoy, and it works for the most part to some truly funny ends in some sparklingly well acted scenes with DiCaprio. There's moments that remind you of the very unironic brilliance from, say, THE LAST DETAIL, but if you wanted a performance that played by the rules you came to the wrong show.

Nice tie

In a lot of ways it's as much a vanity project as either of Scorsese's two previous films yet this one has the deft screenplay those two lost somewhere in their endless re-writes. William Monohan uses an Irish background to sculpt his reworking of the orginial material and by keeping the Italian element out of the picture (but not the Catholic) Scorsese is set free to focus on perfecting his craft for the film at hand. His indulgences are a roving camera we've not seen as effective since KUNDUN and some of the best editing with Thelma Schoonmaker since their first collaboration, RAGING BULL: it's flashy but economic, like the film as a whole. It's also freed his actors and we finally get to see all those traits Marty's been hyping in Leo since GANGS OF NEW YORK was announced: poignant vulnerability, untapped ferocity, a believable man's swagger. Vera Farmiga has the unlucky role of the only female in the picture but her performance may beat all the men's, elevating her Madolyn above the plot device she may have been in the screenplay.

Above all it's entertainment the picture aims to provide and it certainly succeeds. It may be one of the most entertaining movies I've ever seen. And not just from a thrill-a-minute action standpoint: it's a thrill to see such skill in the end result.

02006: 149 minutes: dir. Martin Scorsese: written by William Monahan, based on a previous screenplay by Alan Mak & Felix Chong


  1. Nicely written appreciation of a film that should be as mediocre as Scorsese's recent flicks but, amazingly, isn't.

    It all comes down to energy and life onscreen. Some folks want every Scorsese flick to be a bottomless well of interiority and pain, like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Last Temptation.

    All I want is for each one to be good-- and alive. And every film has to be good/alive in it's own way. This is the Scorsese who made After Hours, Goodfellas and Color of Money (incidentally all shot by camera athlete Michael Ballhaus). If you're remaking one of the most ingenious of Hong Kong crime stories, this is the Scorsese you want.

    Also, I found the ending, which provoked spontaneous actionflick applause, to be very sad. In Goodfellas we followed a sociopathic, if constantly terrified, weasel around. Here the humanity of all but Nicholson's satanic character is undeniable. Just because Scorsese doesn't linger on the dead in this film doesn't mean there isn't an insistent thread of sorrow under all the pyrotechnics. It's called The Departed.

  2. Yeah, I wanted to address the sadness in the picture as this year is turning into the year of the sad movie. Everything I've really enjoyed (except the grand old opry good time that is BLOCK PARTY which I will write about at length come year end) has an element of regret and despair, especially SUPERMAN RETURNS.

    As for the final shot, it's a pretty easy joke that mostly got disimissive laughs both times I saw the movie. I think it works great for a perfect marriage of the black humor and grisly violence on display throughout the film. Plus, you need to laugh, to release, after all that. You leave the theatre smiling, excited, reminded movies can remain excellent even if their aims are resolutely commercial. THE DEPARTED has more pulp value than MEAN STREETS and less depth but I imagine it will live on alongside the latter because, well, it's that good. It's the kind of picture Scorsese and the Nouvelle Vague always dreamed of making: a brilliant distillation of the crime genre that plays hard with Hollywood standards for narrative film. What other Hollywood film this year (save MIAMI VICE) has this much adventurous filmmaking? The editing of the first hour is damn near perfect--Quentin Taratino and Jean Luc Godard (circa 1959) must have wet themselves.

  3. There's something to be said for the role of father figures in The Departed. Nicholson and Sheen are the obvious ones, but Baldwin is as well. Both DiCaprio and Damon have two opposing fathers. the differences between Baldwin and Sheen, then. provide some insight into the psychological struggles of the two main characters.

    DiCaprio has to choose between Perfectly Good Dad (Sheen) and Comically Evil Dad (Nicholson), whereas Damon's options are Slightly Amoral Company Man Dad (Baldwin) and Comically Evil Dad. Damon never has a shot at Perfectly Good, he doesn't enter into his universe.

    It's a germ of an idea, I haven't worked it all out yet.

  4. I agree, Sean, that the father figure is important to the film's success. I probably need to see the original if I want to write about this movie again but for now I really think it may go down as one of Scorsese's best pictures. Critics have been harping on its lack of originality but aside from being a remake the auteur presence is never in doubt and the first hour is some of the most exciting filmmaking ever from a 21st century Hollywood movie. It may not have the inbred social relevance of a true crime story like GOODFELLAS but its pure genre sensibilities, I think, make it one for the ages to stand alongside such heroic touchstones as PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (or any Sam Fuller), PEPE LE MOKO, OUT OF THE PAST, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, TOUCH OF EVIL. Okay, maybe not alongside all of those, but its aims are squarely at that perfect blend of commercialism and existential/nihilistic found in good genre (noir) films: like I said above, everything the Cahiers sect loved.

  5. I dug it a lot myself, though rather than inspiring comparisons to noir (though it does have some relation to that genre, obviously) the one movie it reminded me of most was North By Northwest. It has that combination of suspense, black humor and surprising psychological depth that I associate most of all with Hitchcock.

    That sensibility exists in other Scorsese films (Mean Streets and Goodfellas especially) but never to the extent its expressed in The Departed.

  6. I guess that's more apt a comparison but I still think the film (and Scorsese) are endebted to the nihlism noir genre. Plenty of noirs are entertaining, too.

  7. I keep dropping words and clauses.

    "the film (and Scorsese) are most obviously endebted to the nihlism noir genre."

  8. I like to watch this movie especially since the actor is the one that is the main character in hannibal.

  9. Excellent blog and I think you're an important reporter about all this issues, and movie reporters... in this occasion you're talking about my favorite director, and he won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Departed and earned an MFA in film directing from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. 23jj