Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Scorsese in the Aughts: The Departed (2006)

When Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was released in 2006, there were a few claims about the film being the director’s best since Goodfellas. Critic and blogger Jim Emerson found these claims condescending and believing they suggested Scorsese should stick to making gangster pictures. It’s understandable why Emerson found these claims condescending, particularly when one considers the elegance of The Age of Innocence, or the unique scale for a biopic one can find in a film like The Aviator. On the under hand, I can believe these claims that The Departed was Scorsese’s best since Goodfellas come from the fact that The Departed was arguably his most fun and entertaining since that landmark gangster picture. I’ve read how Gangs of New York and The Aviator have been described as too much like “Oscar bait,” and I’m pretty sure The Age of Innocence has received those criticisms as well. To my memory Cape Fear felt a little too overdone and Casino, his previous gangster picture before The Departed, has been criticized for being too much like Goodfellas. I haven’t seen Kundan or Bringing Out The Dead but I feel those films has gotten lost in the shuffle over the years. The Departed was of course the film which won Scorsese his long overdue Best Director Oscar for this film so in a way he does have to live up to something like Goodfellas or his other great films. Regardless of where one puts the film in the Scorsese canon, there’s something really fascinating to me. It is a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs and its takes that film’s plot and places it so firmly in an American context, it becomes it own entity, a Shakespearean tragedy mixed that’s also a dark and eccentric comedy.
We deal in deception here, what we don’t deal with is self deception.
This line, spoken early on in The Departed by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen), encapsulates the irony at the heart of the film, which is that the deceptions by Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a cop who goes undercover in the mob, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), mob boss Frank Costello’s (Jack Nicholson) mole in the Boston State Police, are forms of self deception. To live an undercover life is essentially to trick yourself in to believing you’re someone else, even if you don’t mean to. When Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) says to Billy later on in the movie how people practice self deception every day, it does hit home how similar we are to the two men, Billy and Colin. Of course, Billy tells Dignam how he’s “not them, alright. I’m not fucking them,” underlining how he is denying how he has been deceptive his own life. In the beginning of the film we learn how Billy, in his early life, would switch from living a middleclass life to living in the projects. Moreover, he has connections to organized crime yet nevertheless has become a state trooper. From this scene between Billy, Queenan and Dignam, we know Billy’s sense of identity is already a complex one.  Billy is also unaware how when he says he’s not like other people, he’s denying how similar he is to Colin, his counterpart in the police department, whom he learns about in the very scene where Billy denies his similarity to other people.
Colin seems more comfortable with dual identity and I think this is a result of how quickly he raises in the ranks of the police department, how he starts dating police psychiatrist Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), and ultimately how cozy his life as an police officer is to Billy’s life in the mob, witnessing violent acts at the hands of Costello and his associate Mr. French (Ray Winstone). What’s also ironic about the film is how much more Billy knows about mob life than Colin does. The opening of the film shows Costello recruiting a young Colin Sullivan, prepping him to eventually becoming a mole within the police. Colin is the perfect mole because he was seduced early on, being prepared his whole life. I also think Colin is the perfect mole because he never seems like a mobster. Costello most likely never wanted Colin to be part of his crew. He wanted Colin to have a clean slate.
Madolyn is also a character who has a deceptive quality to her. When Billy starts going to see her he even asks her if she is a liar. When she responds with “Honesty is synonymous with truth,” he laughs and tells her, “You lie.” Madolyn’s response has an interesting contradiction to it, which underlines how even if Billy and Colin came clean about their real identities, it still wouldn’t get at the truth about who they are as men. Madolyn’s response, relating to her, also suggests that she does have to lie occasionally in her profession and this response is her rationalization. Her deception also comes through when she does make love to Billy while still with Colin. There’s also the tell-tale line, “I thought I was the liar,” which she says to Colin when she finds out about his dual life, suggesting she lied about her to be born baby being Colin’s.  While Vera Farmiga is kept slightly on the sidelines during the film, she does lend authority to the role of Madolyn, making her feel lived in as a character.
DiCaprio and Damon, while only sharing screen time near the end of the film, create fascinating mirror image performances. I feel DiCaprio really conveys the anxiety and vulnerability of his dual identity. We think of Damon as a nice guy kind of actor but here he plays slimy very well, as well as using his likability to convince us this man could trick others, as well as himself, that he was an all-American boy. I like Jack Nicholson as Costello although at times his performance seems to exist outside of the fabric of the film. My favourite scene with him is with DiCaprio when Billy is trying to convince Costello he’s not the rat inside Costello’s crew. I would have liked to have Robert De Niro tackle this role though I understand it may not have exactly suited him. If they still wanted a flamboyant gangster type than maybe Al Pacino, though I think this is a matter of taste since I’m more of a De Niro and Pacino fan than a Nicholson fan.  I think Whalberg may be the standout. Supposedly Ray Liotta and Denis Leary were considered for Dignam. These two actors are considerably older than Wahlberg and while I can see both actors in the role, Whalberg really inhabits the role from his first moments on screen. When he interrogates Billy he is both funny yet the type of person you know is all about antagonism and intimidation.
Scorsese hold back visually for this film, letting the plot breath. Nevertheless, in the editing of scenes, which as David Bordwell and Emerson have pointed out, have continuity issues, and choice of music one still senses Scorsese’s touch. I like the moment when we see a point of view shot of someone about to have a picture of Jesus Christ smashed over his head. Keeping Costello in the shadows at the beginning of the film is also a nice touch, suggesting a cloud of darkness he walks around in. Scorsese has said The Departed is his first film with a plot and while it can be argued his other films do have plots, certainly The Departed is very plot driven and has many “twists and turns.” Fortunately, while it is quite plot driven, I still felt the film was able to be about its plot, which is very fascinating, while still being about the characters and the little details about them and their world. For instance, the banter between Dignam and Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) and Ellerby’s scenes with Colin have an eccentricity to them, it’s almost shocking to see when and how they appear in the flow of the dialogue.   
The ending of The Departed may come as a bit of a cheat to some viewers, particularly on first viewing but I believe the sudden brutality, the swiftness in which its characters are eliminated plays brilliantly like a dark comedic take on Shakespearean tragedy, which is not to say there’s no dramatic impact to the ending, particularly Billy’s death, which is a shot, no pun intended, that’ll always stay with me. Ultimately it’s understandable how all the plot mechanics have come to this. The film is about finding one mole within the mob and the police yet Billy’s downfall comes from the fact there was a second mole in the police, Barrigan (James Badge Dale). When Colin eliminates Barrigan, he feels he is free from his dual identity yet Madolyn rejects him at Billy’s funeral, Third Man style, and Dignam kills him in his own apartment.  If there’s something deflating about everything being resolved so quickly, that’s the intention. However complex our lives and the various plots within them, they can be cut short before any kind of satisfaction.

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