This review forms part of the Martin Scorsese Guest Review series on the very impressive Rorschach Reviews site. If you’re a lover of film like me, you’ll find a lot of interesting stuff over there.
One of cinema’s great injustices was finally laid to rest at the 2007 Oscars when Academy voters ended Martin Scorsese’s 30-year wait for a best directing award.
That it was for The Departed, a solid, entertaining crime thriller and not for any one of his five previous nominations, most of which are better pictures, must have been a bittersweet feeling for Scorsese, who joked it probably won its accolades because it was “the first movie I’ve done with a plot”.
After directing what were arguably the landmark American films of the 1970s (Taxi Driver, 1976), 1980s (Raging Bull, 1980) and 1990s (Goodfellas, 1990), Scorsese entered a new phase of his career in the 2000s, flip-flopping between prestige studio pictures like The Aviator and personal documentaries, such as his Bob Dylan project No Direction Home.
Arriving in 2006, The Departed feels like the last throw of the dice for Scorsese, who at this time must have been wondering if he’d ever collect one of those little golden statuettes.
A remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s superb Infernal Affairs (2002), William Monahan’s script stays pretty faithful to the original, but transfers the storyline from Hong Kong to the mean streets of South Boston.
Irish mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) plants young acolyte Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) as a mole within the Massachusetts State Police. At the same time, William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a kid trying to escape his family’s criminal ways by becoming a cop is persuaded to go deep undercover into Costello’s notorious gang in order to expose its murderous leader. Essentially negative images of one another, the stakes are raised as each risks life and limb to expose the other ‘rat’.
The Departed feels like a Scorsese Greatest Hits package in many ways. With long time Editor Thelma Schoonmaker once again on board, the kinetic editing style he employed to such great effect in Goodfellas and Casino is used throughout the picture, as are the director’s trademark freeze frames and restless, back-and-forth camerawork, lending the film a hyper-reality.
Music has always played a major part of Scorsese’s oeuvre and here it’s no different. Although the soundtrack is fantastic the songs tend to telegraph the action on screen a little too obviously. The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter (seriously, how many times has Scorsese used that song in his films?) is played as Costello takes Sullivan under his wing, while Comfortably Numb (the version featuring Roger Waters, Van Morrison and The Band) soundtracks Costigan finding solace with state-appointed psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), and Roy Buchanan’s cover of Sweet Dreams is used to ironic effect over the closing credits.
A celebrated film historian, Marty also litters the movie with homages, from Scarface (both versions) to Night and the Hunter and The Third Man among others.
One of the film’s biggest diversions from Infernal Affairs is its preoccupation with Catholicism, specifically its hang-ups with sin, guilt and redemption. For someone who almost entered the priesthood in his formative years, it’s no surprise many of his films deal with these issues, although not since his breakout film Mean Streets has Catholicism been so integral to the story.
The church and the streets (literally) bleed together, most viscerally when Costigan uses a picture of Jesus to smash over a guy’s head. Costello represents the devil, luring an impressionable Sullivan into his fold, while Sullivan tellingly purchases an apartment in view of the local church. Also, the guilt Sullivan feels manifests itself in his struggle to perform sexually with Madden.
The concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are integral to The Departed and fascinated Scorsese, who said in an interview: “Good and bad become very blurred. That is something I know I’m attracted to. It’s a world where morality doesn’t exist, good doesn’t exist, so you can’t even sin any more as there’s nothing to sin against. There’s no redemption of any kind.”
The film is full of memorable performances, including Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, who make a great double act as Costigan’s chalk and cheese undercover handlers. Likewise, Alec Baldwin has a ball playing big as Sullivan’s boss, while Farmiga holds her own in the picture’s only significant female role.
Damon, a far more talented actor than he’s given credit for, gives a performance of impressive restraint. DiCaprio on the other hand goes in the other direction and too often falls back on that trademark look he gives of squinting his eyes, pursing his lips and jutting out his jaw to imply anger or stress. It’s to DiCaprio’s credit as an actor that in spite of all that he still gives an impressive performance.
But DiCaprio’s positively catatonic when compared to Nicholson. A legend he may be, but when let off the leash he generally can’t help going way overboard. It’s well established that Costello is a psychopath (his reaction to executing a woman says as much – “Jeez, she fell funny”), but Nicholson’s rabid portrayal bypasses unhinged and goes straight to cartoonish.
The Departed will be best remembered as the film that bagged Scorsese that elusive Oscar. Judged against the director’s other work, however, it’s an entertaining footnote, but a footnote just the same.