DVD Review Of The Departed
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/17/10
Martin Scorsese’s film, The Departed- based upon a 2002 Hong Kong action flick, Internal Affairs, is his best film in over a decade, and a vast improvement over his last two bloated films: Gangs Of New York and The Aviator. That said, it is, in comparison to such classics as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and The King Of Comedy, second rate Scorsese- or in the range of what Casino was compared to Goodfellas, a good, solid, second tier work with flaws, except that, in this comparison, The Departed is Casino to Casino’s Goodfellas. There are several reasons for this. The first is one of the oldest reasons movies tank- the unnecessary love story element. In this film it is a bloated couch potato of an albatross from around whose neck The Departed sags badly in the middle. The moment the female character made contact with the second of the two male leads, I- and any astute filmgoer, knew exactly what would happen between them and how the film would play out, emotionally. The second is that the ending is bad, I mean really bad- a complete deus ex machina, and a narratively factitious one, at that; one which shows old Marty doesn’t trust his viewers that much any longer, and is then compounded by one of the worst closing shots in memory. The third is a recurring problem in recent Scorsese films: Leonardo DiCaprio. Despite all the hoohah, the man simply cannot act. Ok, to be fair, he can memorize lines, but he has no subtlety, no grace, and the fact that Scorsese puts the jailbait ready young blond into roles as tough guys is odd, to say the least, guffaw-inducing, to the point of causing severe bodily injury, in the extreme. One thing in the favor of DiCaprio in this film, however, is an early scene of a hairless bodied, prepubescent looking, DiCaprio stripped to his underwear while standing in a jailhouse line. The scene is likely to have middle-aged homosexual men creaming in their pants for years to come (I couldn’t resist the pun).
With those three caveats out of the way, however, let me state again that The Departed is a good film- at times, a very good film, but nowhere near a great film, and one that should not be thought over too strenuously, lest logic do what it does to eat holes through the plot. Said plot is rather simple, although some people maybe put off by it for Scorsese’s nearly ADD-affected editing style, which while done very well, is nonetheless so quick that often a four or five second key scene, or bit of dialogue, is lost, and the narrative petrifies for some who are not as quick with their senses. Some years ago, the head of a local Irish crime syndicate in South Boston, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson- in the most convincing role of the film, and in his best role in years), takes a boy named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) under his wing. Through the decades, Sullivan becomes invaluable to Costello, who urges him to become a cop, and his mole on the inside of local law enforcement. Another local boy, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), becomes a cop, as well. Both make it through the police academy and apply for the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), headed by Captain Charlie Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg- who gives the second best performance in the film; again outshining DiCaprio, as he did in The Basketball Diaries). Alec Baldwin plays Captain George Ellerby, in another hilarious Baldwinian scenery-chewing performance.
Sullivan is accepted, while Costigan is not, but offered a job to go undercover to infiltrate Costello’s gang. He is given a phony conviction, and serves time in jail, then is ordered to see a state shrink named Dr. Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), who is, naturally, the girlfriend of Sullivan. Recall my above prime reason for the film’s major failing. Soon, she and Costigan hit the sheets, and she feels- you got it, guilt for betraying Sullivan. Costello, meanwhile, seems to drop all of his usually good common sense, and swiftly accepts Costigan into his gang, which includes a psychotic mass murderer named Mr. French (Ray Winstone, in the third best role in the film). These sorts of plot devices, based upon the Dumbest Possible Action principle, and evidence of melodrama, work, for the most part, because the film is so fast-paced and utterly unpretentious, even at two and a half hours in length. While the screenplay, by William Monahan, could have been better without these elements, Farmiga’s performance almost counteracts the film’s inertial and speedy ride over this flaw. She simply does not project enough smarts nor sex appeal to make one understand why both men would be interested in her for she lacks any real chemistry or heat with either actor; plus, she simply telegraphs her every emotion with her eyes.
Anyway, after the usual cat and mouse game between Costello, Sullivan, and Costigan, including some implausible actions on the parts of all three characters- such as a computer chip sale to Chinese gangsters, Sullivan eventually weasels his way into a position to have Queenan followed, accusing him of being Costello’s mole. When he goes to meet Costigan on a rooftop, Sullivan tips off Costello, who sends his men to toss Queenan off the roof, as Costigan barely escapes. However, the cops Sullivan had tailing Queenan shoot it out with Costello’s men, including Costigan, who pretends to arrive late to the ‘job’ of offing Queenan. When Costello’s men recover from the battle, one of them, before he croaks, tells Costigan he knows he was the rat because he deliberately gave him the wrong address, but he showed up at the right one. This is a good example of a nice twist in the script, although stating it so baldly makes it lose some of its impact. However, the fact that the death of Queenan is not enough to make the cops close up Costello’s gang for good is utterly implausible.
Costigan then tries to smoke out the Costello mole, but fails. With Queenan’s death, the SIU goes nuts, and Sullivan and Dignam have it out, with Dignam resigning from the force. Sullivan then tries to find out Queenan’s mole by calling from Queenan’s cell phone. He also finds out that Costello was an FBI informant who stayed in power by ratting out fellow criminals, and worries that Costello might one day turn on him. Sullivan then sets a trap to get Costello killed, and it works, although Sullivan has to do in Costello himself, after Costello admits he was an FBI informant. With Costello dead, Costigan meets with Sullivan, but soon distrusts him after noticing that Sullivan has an envelope with information that Costello was collecting on his boys for his police mole. With Costigan having left, Sullivan sees the envelope, and realizes Costigan knows, so erases his police file, and the evidence that he ever was a cop. Now, a) computer files are not that easily erased, and b) Dignam still knows that Costigan was a cop, so Sullivan’s actions are totally the Hollywood movie Dumbest Possible Action sort. Naturally, this is relieved by the fact that Costigan does something even dumber, which alleviates Sullivan’s stupidity.
And this is where the films starts to slide quickly downhill. Costigan gives Madolyn an envelope with an audio CD of Sullivan talking business with Costello, for, apparently Costello made Costigan his will’s executor- which included taped conversations like this for the FBI. Now, this is wildly implausible, for Costigan was never really trusted by Costello, he must know that Sullivan is her boyfriend, and cannot know where her loyalties lie, and Madolyn- was there ever any doubt?, stupidly, plays the CD for Sullivan, rather than just passing it on to the authorities. She does this, perhaps, because she is pregnant, and the kid may be Costigan’s (who’d’a thunk?). Costigan then blackmails Sullivan into meeting at the rooftop where Queenan was killed, and tries to arrest him- notice the continuing Dumbest Possible Action tropes?, rather than simply turning Sullivan in to the cops. However, Sullivan was- yes, you know it, tailed by one of Costigan’s old police academy buddies, who orders him to surrender. Costigan says that Sullivan was the rat, and goes down an elevator. Another cop is waiting on the ground floor, and kills Costigan with a shot through the skull, then kills Costigan’s officer pal, explaining to Sullivan that he, too, was a Costello mole. He frees Sullivan, who then promptly kills him. Sullivan then lays the blame solely at the second mole’s feet, and recommends Costigan for a Medal, as Madolyn disdains him, even though she could have easily exposed Sullivan.
Now, despite all the Lowest Common Denominator and Dumbest Possible Action tropes till this point, this would have been a powerful and realistic way to end the film, with the bad guy winning, and would have made all the prior predictable tropes serve merely as narrative red herrings. But, the older yet not wiser Scorsese needs to preach, it seems. So, some time later, Sullivan returns to his apartment with groceries in hand, and Dignam is waiting for him. One can surmise that Madolyn tipped of Dignam, but, as he is no longer a cop, and they seem to have never met, it’s, again, implausible. Nonetheless, Dignam wastes Sullivan, who seems resigned to his death, yet- given Sullivan’s recent local fame, would not this immediately bring down a manhunt on Dignam? The thinking being that the organized criminals tried to whack the ‘hero cop’? Anyway, as Dignam leaves the scene of the crime, the camera pans from Sullivan’s corpse, out his apartment window, to a rat crawling on the apartment’s balcony railing, in front of the gold dome of the Massachusetts State House. No, not a subtle ending, and the fact that Scorsese has to end the film so black and white, where he seemed to be saving the best for last (the ending with the bad guy winning), is doubly frustrating, from a viewer’s and writer’s perspective. Compare that ending to Mean Streets’ truly realistic end, Taxi Driver’s twisted twist ending, or Goodfella’s slyly comedic purgatorial end, and this film’s end is almost criminally condescending, by comparison. In fact, the last film that I can recall that so blatantly used symbolism so heavyhandedly was the infamous and laughably bad 1995 Canadian softcore lesbian porno film, When Night Is Falling, about a black circus acrobat- the Negrobat, who seduces a white, French-Canadian professor at a conservative Christian college. Its ending featured the revival of a dead white dog that had been stored in an icebox. Trust me, don’t ask for any further details.
Equally frustrating, in The Departed, is the excessive use of profanity. No, I’m not a prude, and in the earlier classics that he made, Scorsese’s characters spoke such profanities freely and naturally. Not so in this film, where every scene between the cops is about dickwaving and profanity. Between the criminal scum, this is a bit more realistic, but, are we to believe that cops- men who carry guns, routinely physically curse at and brutalize each other whenever another cop does something stupid? Been there, seen that it does not happen- it just doesn’t. This is plain silly, certainly not realistic, and merely evidence of crudity substituting for real screenplay smarts.
As for anything ‘deeper,’ in a film like this one cannot really dig into issues like cultural identity, or masculinity and violence, because, while they are there, they are there at such a superficial level (as opposed to, say, the same theme of violence in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, explored at a far deeper level). On a technical level, the film does employ music well, and the film succeeds with its many quick cuts, even if more longer paced scenes should have been interspersed to let the actors truly act and cogitate on their lives, beyond the overacting DiCaprio does on Fermiga’s couch. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus does his usual competent job, especially in the retro look of some scenes, which open and close with irises.
The two disk DVD, by Warner Brothers, is naturally bloated. There are not enough extras to need a second disk, and furthermore, for a two disk set, they commit the ultimate crime: no film commentary by Scorsese nor any of the leads. There are nine deleted scenes prefaced by Scorsese’s reasons for omission, a profile called Scorsese On Scorsese, a documentary on the criminal this film was based upon: Boston crime kingpin, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a documentary on what influenced Scorsese’s crime films, and the theatrical trailer. Solid stuff, but for two disks, more- especially an audio commentary, should be standard issue. But, were the movie better, the gripes re: the DVD package would be minimal.
As it is, The Departed is good Hollywood fluff, yet, given that it’s Scorsese, more is expected, although I have the sinking feeling that, like Woody Allen, he will never produce another masterpiece. This film follows a standard cops and crooks formula, which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing- consider the 1997 crime masterpiece, L.A. Confidential. The difference is that where that film took a genre formula and twisted it from pulp melodrama into real drama, via the writing and performances, as well as ending the film with a satisfying twist that was unexpected in the small, even if expected in the large (the good guys won), The Departed does the inverse, never rising above melodrama (even if good), and ending the film with a bad twist, of the worst deus ex machina sort. If you watch the film, don’t expect much of an aesthetic not intellectual rush, only some mildly entertaining moments, crafted really well. If you want the former, go watch some earlier films from the Scorsese canon. Unfortunately, given his recent output, that last line was also likely seen coming from a mile away.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]
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