Monday, December 9, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.22: Martin Scorsese's The Departed

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 94/A

Martin Scorsese never stopped making great films, so it’s strange that The Departed still somehow feels like a return to form for the legendary director. It’s not his brainchild, having come from a William Monahan script that remade the already well-liked Hong Kong action film Infernal Affairs. The “remake” tag already sours it in the minds of some purists, and The Departed also had a target on its back after it finally won Scorsese his overdue Best Director Oscar, with some claiming it was a career-win more than anything else. Well, those detractors can stuff it. The Departed is one of those rare remakes that far outpaces the original, a welcome return to the mean streets that spawned him, and one of his most tightly-wound, entertaining films.

“When I was your age, they would say we can become cops or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” So opines Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), an Irish-American crime boss in South Boston who relishes spitting in the face of the law. Frank mentors Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who joins Massachusetts State Police and is promoted to Special Investigations Unit, which gives him a perfect chance to get Frank out of trouble. Along the way, he falls in love with psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga). But the police have their own mole in Costello’s organization: Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose job as an undercover wreaks havoc on his physical and emotional health.

Infernal Affairs had an ingenious premise (A mole in the mob! A mole in the cops! Both looking for each other, also tasked to look for themselves!), but stylistically, it’s fairly sedate compared to most Hong Kong action films. The Departed, on the other hand, is one the best showcase for Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing pyrotechnics since Goodfellas and Casino. The cross-cutting between its twin protagonists is masterful, giving way to some of the most thrilling juxtapositions of Scorsese’s career: Colin getting everything handed to him in the opening credits while Billy toughs it out in prison (brilliantly set to the Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”; Colin and Madolyn on a date while Billy goes to the doctor’s office and stares with a pained, lonely expression at the nurse; Colin solving a crime (by framing someone) and rising in the ranks while Billy has a particularly terrifying encounter with Frank.

The film also has some of the best bits of carefully doled out violence in Scorsese’s oeuvre. When Billy first has to get the attention of the South Boston crime organization, he beats up a couple of Italian gangsters from Providence, and the exact way Scorsese cuts it to the Human Beinz’s cover of “Nobody But Me” recalls some of the brawling in Mean Streets. Then there’s Billy’s first meeting with Frank, in which he and his associate Mr. French (Ray Winstone) decide that they can’t be too careful about that cast on Billy’s arm: again, the exact choreography of the scene to the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Loose” is so perfect that it’s amazing to me that anyone could consider this to be autopilot Scorsese.

The film also sees Scorsese’s most recent collaboration with Goodfellas cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and while there aren’t as many aggressively mobile tracking shots as one might expect, there’s still more than a fair share of incredible compositions. I’m still knocked out every time by the deliberate introduction of Frank in the prologue, where we always see him in the shadows until he comes forward and entrusts Colin with his philosophy. This is the devil, and when he comes forward into the light, we know that he’s bringing this young man with him. Then there’s the heavy use of shadows to emphasize the deep guilt both Colin and Billy feel, and the final shootout between Costello’s men and the police, which feels more like a high-octane Hong Kong-style shootout than anything in Infernal Affairs, frankly.

Monahan’s script is also endlessly quotable, floridly profane in a way that feels like what would happen if Scorsese remade the down-and-dirty gangster films of the 1930s (indeed, The Public Enemy and the original Scarface are notable influences). Just a few choice lines:

I'm gonna go have a smoke right now. You want a smoke? You don't smoke, do ya, right? What are ya, one of those fitness freaks, huh? Go fuck yourself.”

“I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”

“Cui bono? Who benefits?”
“Cui gives a shit? It’s got a friggin’ bow on it.”

“Do you have anyone in with Costello presently?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself.”

But Monahan’s script doesn’t just punch up the dialogue: it fleshes out the characters and the setting. The first hour takes more time setting up how the two moles infiltrate their respective organizations, so when shit goes bad, we know where they’ve been and who they are. With Monahan’s script, Scorsese establishes one of his most colorful milieus, with great bit parts for character actors as working-class Irish cops and criminals (including James Badge Dale as the shifty Trooper Barrigan), getting the feel of Boston where the earlier film made Hong Kong seem like a fairly nondescript city. There’s also an increased sense of paranoia that comes from the post-9/11 times, where surveillance is easy and it’s hard to know who to trust (to quote Alec Baldwin: “PATRIOT Act! I love it, I love it!”).

The major supporting roles are more memorable as well, from Ray Winstone’s scary thug to Alec Baldwin’s wonderfully salty Captain Ellerby to Martin Sheen, whose Captain Queenan is so warm and fatherly that the connection he has to Billy Costigan is far stronger than the one between Tony Leung and his mentor in Infernal Affairs (which amplifies the guilt he feels over Queenan’s death). Best of all is the yang to Queenan’s yin: Mark Wahlberg’s eternally belligerent Staff Sgt. Dignam. One of the funniest assholes in recent cinematic history, there’s nothing warm or ingratiating about Dignam – he’s a grade-A ball-buster who seems to get through life on pure contempt for everyone around him. Yet there’s a refreshing honesty to him compared to the liars who populate the movie: you never doubt what he’s thinking.

There’s been some debate over Vera Farmiga’s character, as original star Andy Lau felt it was a mistake to combine the two love interests (psychiatrist to Leung’s undercover cop, wife to Lau’s corrupt cop) into one person. But it’s that combination that Monahan, Scorsese, and Farmiga take what could be a thankless love interest role (which it was) and add a palpable sense of guilt. Farmiga’s Madolyn is a smart, charming woman, and it’s easy to see why she’d fall for the equally charming Colin. But as his lies start to show, she’s wracked with doubt, which she blames herself for. That feeling is expounded after she falls for the brutal honesty of Billy, whose genuine vulnerability and pain is so much easier to connect with than Colin’s guarded nature. The sex scene between Madolyn and Billy is more purposeful, then: we see the early flirtations between her and Colin, but no consummation, as we’ll never see any real soul-baring between the two, let alone the heightened emotions in her scenes with Billy.

Jack Nicholson has spent much of the past couple of decades doing Jack Nicholson impressions, more or less, but The Departed is one of the welcome exceptions. Sure, he’s recognizably the bigger-than-life lunatic we’ve seen on screen many times before, but Frank is one of his most venal characters, a psychotic in the style of James Cagney’s Cody in White Heat, with an added measure of pure greed. Nicholson based his performance on notorious gangster Whitey Bulger, and the deranged glee and total lack of respect for any rules or regulations he took from Bulger fits his talents perfectly. 

Matt Damon has made a career playing guys pretending to be someone they’re not: Will Hunting is a genius playing a working stiff, Tom Ripley a psycho playing a nice guy, Mark Whitacre of The Informant! a dopey, mentally ill businessman playing hero. Colin Sullivan is a complicated figure, a genuinely charming and likable person who’s nonetheless hiding dark secrets. An early scene with a kid version of Colin shows his admiration for the mad ambition of Frank compared to the rule-abiding nature of the rest of the neighborhood. Colin sees Frank as a way to get out of the working-class and into the good life, but his lawyer aspirations also show his desire to get out from under the thumb of an overbearing, crazy father figure and make something of his own (there’s also great contrast in how Baldwin genuinely embraces him and supports him). He’s constantly working out what he’s going to be from moment to moment, but he’s awfully smooth at hiding it.

By contrast, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan is someone who always looks like he’s hiding something, and the paranoia shows. DiCaprio does the best work of his career as someone whose every move could get him killed, and who knows that and feels all the worse for it. He’s an interesting parallel to Colin: someone who came from a half-bad, half-rich family and is more interested in proving something to them and himself than in making money.

Where Colin coasts by on confidence, the early scenes with Billy show him trying very, very hard to hold in his boiling anger at Dignam, who picks away at him with the glee of a particularly nasty bully. He’d love to just clock him in the face, but he doesn’t want to be a rat bastard like his corrupt uncle Jackie, nor does he want to be an unfeeling blueblood like his mother’s side of the family. There’s real pride in Billy’s face when he learns that his father never took a payoff from Frank. He’s someone who wants so badly to do good, and to prove to a new father figure (Queenan) that he’s not the violent, temperamental jerk that he used to be.

But that requires him pretending to be one, and that’s difficult business. His battery of the two mafia men might be part of a gamble to get noticed by Costello, but the way he throws himself into it (and breaks his own hand) gives an early sign to how he can get carried away give into that worse side of himself (see later: shooting a guy in the kneecap for not giving him the right answer). He’s surrounded himself by violent men who not only might kill him, but whose violent temperament is affecting him. His blowup in Madolyn’s office is possibly the best scene DiCaprio ever played, the sign of a good person who’s cracking under pressure.

As The Departed winds up to its masterful final forty-five minutes, that sense of paranoia and guilt goes through the roof to levels that approach Greek tragedy. Queenan’s death is a major point for both of the protagonists: guilt weighs on Billy because he was protecting him, and now he’s lost a real father figure, while it weighs on Colin as he becomes increasingly uncertain about what he’s doing and whether it’s in Frank’s interests to keep him safe.

There’s a real father-son connection between Colin and Ellerby, and the way Frank uses him starts to feel more and more sociopathic as perks give way to threats of murder (not to mention a threatened rape of Madolyn). The increasing paranoia of Frank after he realizes there’s a “rat” in his crew only makes things harder for Billy, who can’t show any sign of weakness or sensitivity outside of his meetings with Madolyn. The betrayal of Frank by Colin becomes one of the most righteous son-killing-father scenes in cinema history, then, after he finally calls bullshit on Frank’s motives.

The final act of The Departed is even more heated. The slipping identity of Billy is in even greater in jeopardy after he realizes that Colin is the rat, while Colin’s own safe nest in the police department is called into question by Billy’s information. The final showdown, then, is so heightened and so perfectly tense because of how much more the feelings of guilt and paranoia weigh on their questions of identity – it matters who ends up on top. I still remember someone in the theater audibly whispering “No!” at DiCaprio’s shocking death scene, which comes out of nowhere if you haven’t seen Infernal Affairs and happens so quickly that even if you have seen the original it’s still a major jolt. Yet as unjust as it seems, there’s still some sense of righteousness in the world, and with one half of that coin destroyed, balance must be restored. That’s why Billy gets the hero’s funeral while Colin loses everything before his eventual righteous murder (and a nice little joke CGI rat that a lot of people got way too up in arms about). There might not be justice in life, but the film is just as much about death, and in Scorsese’s deeply Catholic worldview, we all get what we deserve after death.

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