Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Departed (Scorsese 2006)

(NOTE: Ok, so where is the Carnival of Souls review? As anyone who has followed this blog for an extended period of time knows, I have been having laptop problems, with the machine breaking down every few months. To avoid this interfering with the reviews, I decided to start writing them on the family desktop, which has been very reliable.

Until this morning, when the damn thing crashed.

As such, my review is trapped on the machine, meaning I have to rewrite from scratch rather than finish my edit. So, to keep things going here, I am posting a "classic" review from back when I just placed these things on facebook. Carnival will be posted late Monday or Tuesday, but it WILL be next.)

The most fascinating element of the Martin Scorsese film The Departed (2006)is also the element which undermines the film the most. Using the same basic storyline of Wai-keung Lau Siu Fai Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2002), in which moles for both sides of a police/organized crime conflict hunt one another, Scorsese modifies the themes of identity from the original to include a focus upon a Biblical understanding of lineage, exploring the concept of how family shapes not only our immediate self understanding, but also shapes the context of how we are received in the world. Sounds good and rich for exploring, huh?

So how can this rich thematic material be a problem as I have noted? Primarily, it is an issue of execution, resulting in a war between characters for control of the narrative. As the basic story outline would indicate, it is the moles that would seem to be the main characters: the mob mole Colin (Matt Damon), and Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an undercover agent for the Boston police. However, The Departed unbalances the narrative by giving an almost equal amount of screen time to Jack Nicholson’s Costello, head of the Boston Irish mob, who plays surrogate father to both characters in the film. The end result is an unfocused film that doesn’t really seem overly invested in the tale it is supposedly telling.

Costello is a fascinating character, and Nicholson manages to turn in a performance that is his best in a long, long time, requiring him to turn down his Jack-isms that have become standard over the last twenty years. Scorsese paints Costello as a fraud coming apart at the seams, projecting an image of power while being literally and figuratively impotent. As the film opens, we are presented with narration from Costello, where he reveals that he always wanted to be able to impact his environment, rather than it impacting him. Certainly, he is able to achieve half of the goal, as his actions and choices simultaneously destroy and help the lives of others. However, Costello is still birthed from the violent culture around him, with the criminal elements around him helping to facilitate his dreams, and in turn he facilitates the criminal endeavours of others. Yet none of what he seeks, or produces is original. Yet even the simple ability produce an heir escapes him, and the result is an increasingly deranged man on the verge of self destruction. It is an excellent character study.

However, this does raise a big question: why wasn’t Costello the lead in his own film? Costello dominates the film so much that Colin and Costigan become one note characters in their own film. They never become living, breathing people, but stock characters who do only what the plot tells them to do, a plot which itself is mostly dictated by the Costello character.

Furthermore, in being reduced to stock characters, Colin and Costigan's identity crisis, which was supposedly the whole dramatic thrust of the film, is treated in the most superficial manner possible. The original film Infernal Affairs was more about the hell of existing without understanding one’s own identity, where death is presented not as a horrible outcome or justice, but as release from have to live a life of uncertainty. The Departed by contrast defines identity in black and white terms, with the filmmakers stacking the the deck against Colin so much that there is no sense of the identity confusion central to the original film. Colin is clearly a villain, and Costigan so clearly heroic that there is no drama. Instead, the audience sits and waits for the inevitable conclusions to be reached, and for Costello to come back on screen and do something of interest.

As such, the bounty of thematic ideas contained within the film are left undeveloped, being tossed on screen with the connecting tissue between them failing to keep the film together. The personal and political dualities never really come together in a meaningful way, resulting in a frustrating experience for the viewer. Well, at least this one.

The situation is made all the worse by the far too large supporting cast, filled with actors fighting to accomplish something of value on screen. Mark Walberg, Alec Baldwin, and Martin Sheen are among the cast who have nothing to do in the film except go through the motions with little rhyme or reason. Walberg, for example, has little to do except curse and wait to fulfill his role at the end of the film, while Martin Sheen fails to make any impression whatsoever. Baldwin fairs a little better with his somewhat comical department head, but still the character never evolves beyond the “angry Alec” of numerous other films.

It might sound like I am being hard on the film, and perhaps I am. There are many wonderful elements in the film, from Scorsese’s visual style (a shot of a coked out Costello is perhaps the most haunting) and sequences that manage to entertain, such as an alleyway chase that is every bit the equal of the same scene in the original. But the film lives moment to moment rather than existing as a unified whole, which at two and a half hours results in allowing the viewer to reflect far too much on the flaws rather than on what works.

The most frustrating aspect of all of this though is that it was this film Scorsese won his Oscar for. Certainly, the man deserved it a long, long time ago for his previous efforts, including his most recent work before The Departed. But awarding him for this film was a serious mistake: the Oscars are (supposedly) to award the best filmmaking efforts of the year, not the lifetime body of work of an individual (unless, of course, it is a lifetime achievement Oscar). Scorsese has made better films, and will make better films. To award him for this work undermines the value of what such an award should mean to him. With any luck, he will get nominated again for a worthy film, and win this time for the right reasons.

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