Wednesday, 15 February 2017

GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: The Departed (2006)

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The Departed (USA, 2006)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg

IMDb Top 250: #42 (15/2/17)

One of the many effects of winning an Oscar is that the person or film in question is tied indelibly to that achievement. For some actors or directors, the Academy Award can be a curse, a moment of brief and fleeting glory which their careers never recapture. If Michael Cimino hadn't won five Oscars for The Deer Hunter, fewer people would have had so much riding on the success of Heaven's Gate, and Hollywood could be a very different place.

The Departed is another example of a film whose award-winning reputation has overshadowed whatever qualities it may possess (though, unlike The Deer Hunter, there are many qualities of which to speak). Nobody who cares about film would deny that Martin Scorsese deserves the Academy's recognition for his body of work, and there are many that about The Departed which are worthy of praise. But set against both the film that inspired it and other films in Scorsese's oeuvre, one can't help but feel that the Oscar decision was motivated by a need to atone for not awarding it to better films he made in the past.
Taken purely as an English language remake of a foreign language film, The Departed comes close to the benchmark set by Christopher Nolan's Insomnia four years earlier. It takes the central dynamic of Infernal Affairs (the cop infiltrating the mob and vice versa) and successfully relocates it from Hong Kong to Boston. While the surroundings may have been Americanised, this doesn't feel like a dumbed-down mainstream remake, like the terrible American version of The Vanishing. It still feels like a Scorsese film, and Scorsese has respectfully recreated all of the murky intrigue of the original plot while the different acts play out in a more familiar setting.
In fact, The Departed is so much a Scorsese film that it often feels like a self-pastiche. All of the normal Marty trademarks are there: a pop music soundtrack, in which the choice of music often surprises and wrong-foots you; the affectionate nods to classic Hollywood films; a wide variety of intense and inventive camera angles; a kinetic yet measured editing approach; and a range of distinctive characters. It may simply be a consequence of how embraced and widely imitated Scorsese has become as a filmmaker, but these characteristics are so much at the forefront of the film that it can feel like he's treading water.
There are a couple of other indications that this film is Scorsese-lite - namely that the director is having fun without endlessly pushing the envelope like he did at his peak. The first is that the performances are much bigger, not to say riper, than he would have allowed in the likes of Goodfellas or Mean Streets. Jack Nicholson is allowed to chew the scenery in a way that he hasn't done in a serious film since The Shining; he takes William Monahan's script and turns Frank Costello into a grotesque, slug-like tyrant, somewhere between a Roman Emperor and Jabba the Hut. It's still an eye-catching performance, but you're always aware of how much room he has been given and how loose some of his scenes can feel.
The other indication is that The Departed feels much more of a procedural film than either Infernal Affairs or other similar films that Scorsese has made. Infernal Affairs had a metaphysical quality to it; the original title literally translates to "unceasing path", a reference to Avici, the lowest level of Buddhist hell, in which those present endure incessant torment and suffering. Directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak created an all-pervading sense of the two main characters constantly questioning their purpose, their decisions and what awaited them when it was all over. The existential questioning both provided depth and ended up driving a fair amount of the plot.
That's not to say The Departed is shallow or empty-headed, any more than procedural TV shows like Dragnet and NCIS are inherently inferior to more suspense-driven thrillers. The set-pieces are still exciting and well-structured, and Scorsese deserves credit for keeping the characters as central to said set-pieces as possible. But there's less of an emphasis on building atmosphere as an accompaniment to the plot, as there is in Chinatown or Angel Heart, and much more of an emphasis in watching all the pieces fit together like a Swiss watch.
Once you strip away the generic conventions and the Scorsese visual grammar, The Departed is fundamentally a film about dysfunctional families and father-son relationships. Sullivan's use of 'Dad' when talking to Costello (seeing him as a father figure, just as Henry Hill viewed Paulie) is mirrored by the lack of an upstanding father figure in Costigan's life. These are all characters who are staring into the abyss, doing what they can and trying to fill the void with whatever works at the time, whether it's women, power or simply getting one over on their enemies.
The very best scene in The Departed is also one of the least heated, featuring as it does none of the Costello-driven violence and no ear-bleeding, David Mamet-esque profanity at the hands of Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg in a good performance). It comes in the second half when the respective rats - played by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio - speak to each other on the phone as their efforts to find the mole in each other's organisations begins to take hold. The initial conversation, which is wordless, is thoroughly well-played, and the follow-up is tense and loaded. Like the Billy Bats trunk scene at the start of Goodfellas, this is the point at which everything changes for the characters, and the subsequent reveal involving the envelope is executed fantastically well.
One of the main changes that Scorsese and Monahan chose to make from the original was to amalgamate the love interests for both Sullivan and Costigan. Given the course of these two characters, it is difficult to see how the filmmakers would have found the time to properly establish two meaningful romantic relationships. But if we accept this, surely the solution would be to simply take the romance out of the equation altogether, rather than creating a compromise character which makes things seem needlessly contrived.
Vera Farmiga is a fine actress, as her subsequent work in Source Code confirms. There is nothing wrong with wanting to give screen time to female characters in what is traditionally a male-dominated genre, and there is an argument for combining the two love interests to make a point about the two leads sharing some form of humanity outside of their allegiances. But as a result of having to fulfil two purposes within the plot, she is given less room to work with and ends up badly written. We are asked to believe that someone in her position could be completely oblivious to what is going on, and given her characterisation that simply doesn't wash.
The Departed is a gripping and engaging thriller which is entertaining in the moment while falling some way short of the best that Scorsese has to offer. It's hard to argue that it deserved the Oscar over many of his earlier works, but taken on its own merits it's a well-oiled, nicely-plotted piece of work and, alongside The Aviator, represents a partial return to form following the flabbiness of Gangs of New York. While it isn't the finest hour for any of its participants, it's easily deserving of your time.

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NEXT REVIEW: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

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