As the saying goes, spoiler alert ahead.
Critics have written that The Departed by Martin Scorsese (released in the UK on Friday) is his best film since Goodfellas. I'd go further and argue that The Departed is actually his best film since Raging Bull, and in some ways is his late masterpiece, bettering Taxi Driver - in the same curious way that Welles made Touch of Evil as a pulp genre film whose stylish command of film language exceeds his youthful classics Kane and Ambersons.
A few things need to be noted early on in this review, to establish the signal importance of this great American movie. For The Departed is also, surely, the first great American film of the 21st century. 1) Scorsese is a master historian of American cinema; 2) Violence (in terms of power) is the central theme and trope of American cinema, from Birth of a Nation on; 3) The two great American film genres are The Western and the Gangster picture; 4) Directors of Scorsese's generation began to rethink violence, and the Gangster/Western genres, relating them to current political trends, such as Viet Nam and Watergate - so, we get Bonnie & Clyde, Badlands and Taxi Driver, the three great films that combine the Western and the Gangster film and throughly revised them, in terms of style and relevance. 5) Scorese's key set of films - Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York - represent an unparalleled contemporary development of American cinema, then.
Returning to the present, The Departed is a thrilling advance for Scorsese in his command of cinema. Never before (or at least not since De Niro-Foster) has he been able to present a sexual-romantic chemistry on film between his main characters that fully expands on the themes of the film, and does not seem false or a commerical appendix. Vera Farmiga is wonderful to watch here, as she moves between DiCaprio and Damon, her intelligence and sexual intensity never repressed, and always allied.
Further, Scorsese has always before had trouble balancing commercial and artistic imperatives. The Departed is as exciting a commercial film as Pulp Fiction but also a masterclass in film-making of the highest order. Indeed, The Departed does everything Tarantino can do (blending hip music, shock violence, great acting and dialogue, and exteme style) with the important addition of providing a moral subtext that evaluates and questions said violence and style.
I predict The Departed will, in time, be seen as a classic, and a loved film that is returned to, again and again. It works so perfectly on so many levels, it is a treat to watch, and reflect on. The acting is superb and inspired - having Jack Nicholson and Martin Sheen as the twin older rivals and mentors in the Manichean struggle means that so many classic 70s films, from Five Easy Pieces to Badlands, to of course, The Shining and Apocalypse Now, are shadowed and present. Then, the tough-talking 80s Mamet element is superbly represented by Alec Baldwin in his greatest cameo. Finally, the three roles of the young turks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg and Matt Damon represent the rise of the latest indie cinema. Di Caprio, especially, gives a fine performance, one that, in its method intensity, reminds the viewer of James Dean, if not Brando.
The dialogue is funny, memorable and brilliantly structured (the references to Shakespeare are both telling and ironic). The script is of course a remake of Infernal Affairs - and it works, bettering a great Hong Kong thriller (startlingly) by enriching the colours, themes, and even use of the mobile phone. Suspense never lags, and there are even moments of Beckettian comedy (as in the all beautiful women are cops routine near the final reel). Then, the mise-en-scene is lovely - all the use of blue skies and light especially. The editing is superb - consider the first five minutes before the opening credits that sets up the central binary conflict. But what is best is the powerful critique of American foreign policy in Iraq.
Scorsese, in interviews, admits that Iraq presents the disheartening ground on which the film's strangely terrible anarchy unfolds. It is, in short, Scorsese's Titus Andronicus (the severed hand at one point suggests this) - this is a roman world of pain, of savagery, where the moral order is so compromised as to be absent, except in the potentially empty signs of Christian faith (priests, nuns, etc.). As the threatened priest at one point says, "Pride comes before a fall" - well, we've had the pride, and the fall, and now this is what's left. Indeed, the fall of Sheen is the death-knell of liberal American values of decency and justice. The golden dome of the state house shines in the distance, like Gatsby's green light, but the reflecting sun blinds Damon to the truth - he can never reach it from his penthouse no matter how close it looks - for there is all that dreadful bright blue sky between him and truth.
The central pull of the movie is Nicholson's performance, however. It threatens to dominate and destroy the artistry of the whole, but, except in one slightly ill-judged use of a prosthetic phallus in a porn cinema, never goes entirely OTT. Then again, that's Nicholson's way. From The Shining to his role as The Joker, Jack's been crazed. Here, he is allowed to play a role that is a grotesque parody of ego unbound - a man who "kills and fucks" to avoid facing his own lack of line, his barren bed (and empty ethos). In the movie's weirdest, red-lit and melodramatic moments, Nicholson enters a Faustian world of cocaine-fulled orgies, sandwiched between a black and a white woman of great beauty, signalling that sometimes, neither black or white leads to anything but more bloodlust, establishing the neurotic terror at the film's observant core (there may be no good or bad that works on an Earth bereft of a divinity).
While the script observes that Freud felt the Irish to be immune to the talking cure, this does seem the Oedipal tension in the movie - especially since Nicholson's decadent gang-leader seems to admire, even fear, DiCaprio's (dead) father, the one who worked in the Airport handling baggage and refused to be corrupted. It's a homely but timely image, of the man in the aiport who can be trusted, post-9/11. In one of the film's oddest and most compelling moments of dialogue, DiCaprio and Nicholson discuss progeny and extension of power. DiCaprio tells Nicholson "I could be you - but I don't want to be you" - an inversion of "I could have been a contender" (On The Waterfront being of course the great template for films about corruption and doubles, brothers - i.e. "this man doesn't need a doctor, he needs a priest") - and it is also a thrilling meta-cinematic statement about film careers and choices. Scorsese is annointing Leonardo as the next Jack. He is the new Robert De Niro.
The Departed deserves the Academy Award that has for too long been withheld from Scorsese. It is only the cruellest of ironies that this, his finest stament on American evil, and the subtlest exploration of American society and politics, has appeared in the same year as United 93.
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