The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese)

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What generally puts me off about Martin Scorsese’s films is their smug, testosterone-driven pessimism — that’s if we assume that he’s clucking his tongue at the bad behaviors wallowed in by signature pictures like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, in which case he’s an annoying moralist. If he’s just documenting the lower depths of maleness, as many of his supporters claim, I suppose that I’m just not in his audience, but I still firmly believe that there’s far less value to his cynicism than to the more acidic sort exemplified by Billy Wilder or Alexander Mackendrick, and anyway, shouldn’t we get over that kind of thing in our teens to start with? Plus, is the guy contractually obligated to turn in every movie at over 150 minutes or what?

None of these complaints are alleviated by The Departed, the film already (just seven years after its release) most famous for breaking the director’s long losing streak at the Oscars. It’s not really a celebrated film. Nobody talks about it much, nobody as I recall was all that enthusiastic about it in 2006. But the thriller junkie in me thinks it works, probably for the same reasons that Scorsese apologists think it’s one of his minor works; it operates in a land of story conventions and suspense plotting that belong to Hollywood traditionalism, and better Hollywood genre picture tradition than whatever tradition later wrought the regrettable Shutter Island. The pulp story here is deliberately contrived, a reasonably faithful but considerably better remake of Infernal Affairs, a Hong Kong action picture from which all of the basic story points are derived and then fleshed out. The fast-moving, admirably intricate plot sets up a deliciously fun criss-cross structure between two budding police officer hopefuls in Boston: Leonard DiCaprio is a decent hothead pretending to be a crook under Jack Nicholson’s local pompous mob boss; Matt Damon was engineered by Nicholson to infiltrate the police force almost from birth, he’s a bad dude and a Good Cop. Baddies don’t know DiCaprio is a goodie, vice versa for Damon. Got it? Rewind if you have to; you can still do that.

Though it doesn’t make much of an impression visually — it has the same washed-out, ugly appearance of a lot of films of the mid-to-late 2000s, and shares its pallid color design with Shutter — the film is of course technically well-directed, splendidly stylish (try not to be hooked when the title suddenly flashes onscreen fifteen minutes in, after the premise is perfectly set up), and there are genuinely tense moments here and there; the ingenuity of the premise is to allow for plenty of nail-biting close calls shadowing, checking cell phone text messages (the movie serves as a funeral march for the flip phone, really), and Martin “Everyone Is in This Movie” Sheen’s bumbling conspicuousness. The original film did far less with what it was given; Scorsese seizes on every opportunity, for himself and for the audience. That’s the best you can hope for in a populist detour within an illustrious career, right?

By fusing the tight plotting with his technical mastery, Scorsese produces a piece of trashy entertainment that’s magnificently engrossing and nasty. Though the stuffed script (adapted by William Monahan, of all people) leaves little time for too much of his typical indulgences, there are nevertheless excesses I could do without. Start with the director’s unfailing penchant for macho shouting matches and wall-to-wall Time Life “History of Rock” soundtracks (hey look the Dropkick Murphys hey look the Dropkick Murphys again), and with the scene in which intellectual overaged hoodlum Nicholson goes to the opera with some prostitutes and then has an orgy with literal splattering of cocaine. It’s not objectionable, it’s just silly.

Yet that very silliness is what makes some of the performances so enjoyable; Nicholson’s drug kingpin is a whirlwind of fifth-hand movie stereotypes, too clearly having fun to be a credible villain, but is also as delightfully off the rails as he’s been since his tour de force in Mars Attacks!. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon are both about what you’d expect, doing their best to play the straight men to the outlandish goofiness of Mark Wahlberg (who’s painfully unfunny, but oh well), which in turn makes them look pretty goofy. DiCaprio in particular is wearing all the shedding-of-old-teenybopper-image benchmarks of a George Michael video, and is none the better for it, snarling at a baffled Vera Farmiga through gritted teeth, while Damon looks as clueless about the story as many of the audience members. That oft-reported confusion is certainly a consequence of how much Damon and DiCaprio look alike, and the story plays better, oddly enough, if you’ve already seen Infernal Affairs. There’s some evidence that Scorsese intended the plotline to be hard to follow on first pass. God knows why. It doesn’t help, frankly, that the coincidences are even more ludicrous than in the older film — but the characterization and plotting improve tenfold, so you may find yourself wrapped up like in a really good cop show. Nothing more artistically legit than that, mind you.

I’d be a little more generous toward this if not for the way that it seems less to dull the things that bug me about the director’s output, as Goodfellas did, than to give him a new angle from which to approach the same old shit — check the internet for the rousing choruses about how awesome all of the carnage and bitchery in this thing is. And while it’s extremely refreshing to see a Hollywood film so driven by story, Scorsese continues to quote his favorite movies a bit too blatantly, specifically in this case The Third Man and Strangers on a Train, and I think this is the sixth or seventh time he’s used “Gimmie Shelter.” I enjoyed the thing enough that I didn’t much care while it was on, although my finger constantly reached for the volume button. It is a little too long and the ending — a closing bloodbath that lends the whole enterprise an air of idiotic futility — will have you repeating “waste” like a mantra at the water cooler. To be sure, it’s not exactly Hamlet, but there is some poetry to its nonsense, a feeling I have not previously gotten from the director’s work, including most of his acknowledged classics. Just try not to think about how The Third Man and Strangers on a Train never won a single Oscar.

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