If this blog can be said to have three causes célèbres, they would be my desire to reverse the ongoing decline of foreign film in the United States, my longstanding defense of Michael Moore and my deep wish to see Martin Scorsese finally get what's coming to him; An Academy Award for his work as a Director. On Friday night, in an effort to both improve my chances in the annual Sarasota Film Festival Oscar pool and get my head out of submissions for a few hours (and re-connect with the experience of watching movies in a public theater), I headed down to the Regal Hollywood 20 to catch a double feature of Notes On A Scandal (which I enjoyed very much) and Scorsese’s The Departed. I know critical responses have been relatively positive for The Departed, but many people have questioned his decision to re-make an already terrific film; Having seen Infernal Affairs, I was nervous on my way into the theater. I had been avoiding The Departed for various reasons, primarily because I didn’t want to be let down by a movie that felt derivative of a superior original* and I wasn't confident Scorsese's style would work in the world of Boston cum Hong Kong cops and robbers. All of the hot air and chatter really got to me and I am embarassed; How could I have lost faith? The Departed fits perfectly into Scorsese’s oeuvre, a near-definitive noir procedural of such ferocious momentum and virtuosity that it left me breathless from the first frame.
Watching such a visually ambitious, masterfully edited opening sequence, in which each character is drawn in the bold, freehand lines that only a master could hope to create, I was immediately reminded of Goodfellas and Ray Liotta’s first-person freeze-frame narration. Everything shown is essential and not a single shot is gratuitous nor wasted; Scorsese’s camera is everywhere at once, grabbing each image by the throat and charging it with a palpable, rhythmic velocity. Watching the dazzling array of shots, each one (again) essential, I was struck by the way in which Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography (to think that this is the same man that shot The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant!!) and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editorial work on the film seemed to be in perfect symbiosis; The cuts and rhythm of the film are a singular statement of intent and vision, a team of gifted artists working at the top of their game. It’s funny I am so glad I waited until after Sundance to see this film. After watching the (completely understandable) parade of budgetary limitations on display in many of the American indies that played in Park City (and similarly, the limitations those constraints place on the ambitions and structure of the storytelling itself), it was nearly overwhelming to watch a master, with endless gifts and tools at his disposal, take this very complicated story of converging parallel lives and strip it to 149 minutes of pure poetic celerity.
For those who haven’t seen the film or the original (I am very late to the game on this one, so that’s probably none of you), a quick synopsis; Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson, in his best performance in years) is the head of Boston’s Irish crime syndicate. In an attempt to keep tabs on the police investigations of his operation, Costello sends one of his best, brightest and most loyal underlings, a sociopathic liar named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), to infiltrate the police force. Sullivan quickly climbs the ladder and he is placed on the team investigating Costello, his boss, to whom he feeds a steady stream of information about law enforcement’s efforts to bring down the syndicate.
At the same time, the police send Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio in one of the best performances of his already terrific career), a young wanna-be cop from a notorious family, deep undercover by sending him to prison. When Billy gets released, his criminal aspirations and penchant for violence are immediately rewarded; He earns a place in Costello’s gang of drug dealers while giving his masters in law enforcement everything they need to know about the kingpin’s nasty plans. The remainder of The Departed is basically the story of two men, Costigan and Sullivan, each on a collision course; Costigan is trying to find Costello’s plant in the police department from inside Costello’s gang while Sullivan is hoping to uncover the rat in Costello’s gang from inside law enforcement. Violence comes easily and often in the world of the cops and robbers, and each organization is presented as a macho system of bumbling ineptitude and an almost religious devotion to the hierarchical structure of paternalism; When the bosses on both sides fall away (in rhyming instances of patricide), the void they leave behind is filled with a frenetic, almost Shakespearian eruption of blood that would have made Titus Andronicus proud.
Convergence: Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in Martin Scorsese's The Departed
The operatic (that word again!) scope of the tragic story plays perfectly into Scorsese’s strengths as a filmmaker, and he honors the structural parallels of the narrative with enough rhyming, echoing and mirroring to fill a book. It is, however, his use of music and Schoonmaker’s editing that filled me with delight; As Scorsese cuts between his characters, songs burn just below the surface of things, masterfully bridging the tone and structure of the visual changes taking place. Right from the get-go, as The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter rips through the opening montage, rising and falling with the action, Scorsese’s formal strategy comes through loud and clear; We are in the realm of classical drama, a Faustian world of debts and betrayals where, in the end, everyone gets what’s coming to him.
Which is precisely what I hope happens on Oscar night. I know that The Departed is not Scorsese’s masterpiece, and I am also aware of the Academy’s consistently prudish and hypocritical refusal to “honor violence” at the Academy Awards (unless you're Braveheart and despite the industry's unabashed glee in releasing and marketing the most graphic and poorly executed violent dreck in order to line their wallets). This year, however, the stars may be aligned; Already having won The DGA Prize and The Golden Globe for Best Director, Scorsese seems on his way to a much-deserved victory. I’ve been reading nasty comments here and there online slagging off The Departed as an inferior Scorsese film, but I don’t understand the logic there; If The Departed is the best piece of direction this year (of the nominated films in the category, I think it certainly is the best work of the group), why should Scorsese be forced to compete against his own past snubs? Even Scorsese’s biggest allies are aware of the role history is playing in the debate over the film. In the circular logic of some thinkers, if Scorsese lost for his superior films, any win for The Departed is an honorary Oscar in disguise, a reward not for his direction, but a correction of historical mistakes. That’s bullshit; The man has been class all the way and in the universe of Hollywood movies that earn this type of industry recognition, the film is, in my opinion, the superlative piece of work this year.
The trophy is deserved. This year. For The Departed.
*Having seen The Departed and Infernal Affairs, I think it's a waste of time to argue about which film is better; I like them both very much for different reasons. They're also different movies with the same story, so just as I can like both Heaven Can Wait and Here Comes Mr. Jordan, I can appreciate both films.