Monday, October 09, 2006

Is The Departed quite what it's been cracked up to be? (REVIEW)


Is The Departed quite what it's been cracked up to be?
In a word. NO.

But it is a fabulous film all the same with an especially powerful and moving performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan - I for one sincerely hopes he gets an Oscar nomination for Actor in a leading role for this work.

Anyway, I don't want to be too spoilerific in this review, which I'll also try (and probably fail) to keep brief, as so much is being written about this film at the moment. There's no point regurgitating the plot to excess - it's being trailed just about everywhere - but in a nutshell: two Boston cops; Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is corrupt and secretly working for crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), whilst Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is dispatched from the force to work as undercover as one of Costello's favoured henchmen. Before long the police and Costello realise they both have a 'mole' - at which point Sullivan is hired to find himself.

Much has been said of the towering, bravura performance from Jack Nicholson - much of it hyperbolic and pandering. Having said that, he is effective and more than a little frightening at times. A Shakespearean villain in full, flamboyant flow. But he is very much mad, bad Jack as we know and love him. This role was hardly a stretch. I still think his best work in recent years has been About Schmidt and I adored Melvyn in As Good as it Gets - and to be brutally honest, I couldn't help but discern mild traces of Melvyn in Frank Costello, odd as that may sound.

There has been talk a-plenty that Nicholson might be nominated for an Oscar as 'leading' actor for this film. I certainly hope this is not the case. He is most definitely 'supporting' - even though he is the pivotal character throughout. The spine of the story, so to speak.

We definitely have two co-leads here, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio; and to be honest, Damon has the bigger, though not necessarily meatier role. This is not to say he has more screen time, or that he is the hero - but Damon's Sullivan is the 'protagonist'. This narrative charts HIS character development above all, from his childhood, when his tender, young soul was effectively sold to the devil (Costello) through pecuniary desperation and a need for protection in the roughest part of Boston, to his seamless but duplicitous rise through the ranks of the State Police. Throughout, we just about see more of Sullivan's backstory and home life than any other character, and observe his development from smug to fearful, from morally moribund to self-questioning through to cold self-assertion in a desperate attempt to survive. Damon performs well here and certainly proves yet again that he is one of Hollywood's finest, most competent young actors. However, I much preferred Andy Lau in this role in the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, of which The Departed is so famously an adapted remake.

There is a certain froideur Damon brings to his personas on film, which often belies an inner turmoil or heated aggression. This enables him to successfully play characters who have double, deceitful or troubled identities. Indeed, he is a pastmaster at this type of role, and it is why he is ideal for Colin Sullivan who is embroiled in his own fiercely contested identity issues - eventually struggling to cope with the complexity of his own life. By the end of The Departed he is quite desperate to affirm his own sense of self, away from Costello - but in this film, such self-assertion is not allowed it seems. It is as though the invisible wheels of pre-destination are set in motion when one is a child - one cannot escape one's fate.

This is certainly true of Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) who has family on his paternal side who were famously active in Boston's seamy, brutal Gangland, (but notably not his own father). Due to a messy divorce, young Billy has managed to navigate an edgy path between two sharply-constrasting worlds: suburban middle-classville and inner-city underclass. As an intelligent and determined adult, (though still emotionally burdened by his confusing childhood), he becomes an undercover cop, forced to pal up with gangland boss Costello and engage in heavy-duty, gut-churning violence on a regular basis. It comes easily to Costigan while never dehumanising him in the process - perhaps it's in the genes?

Again, there is a sense that one cannot escape one's true self, one's fate. Indeed, this is precisely the argument Police Sergeant Dignam (a splendidly foul-mouthed Mark Wahlberg, though not quite as amazing as the critics suggest) and Captain Queenan (an uncharismatic performance from Martin Sheen) make to Costigan, when they recruit and re-train him for a life in subterfuge. They effectively exhort Costigan to tap into his dark 'Costigan' blood, and importantly, his Costigan contacts, to get close to Costello. It is relatively easy for Costigan. There really is a pent-up agression, a mania, raging to be let loose at any given moment, which typifies his progress throughout this film.

But there is also a searing vulnerability, an emotional rawness, which is truly heart-rending. It is no surprise that this friendless, rather frightening and extremely frightened young man, who is clearly intelligent and sensitive and desperate to love and be loved, completely steals this film. Nicholson's showiness as Costello is gaining the critical plaudits and possibly the honours too but this is a genuine tour-de-force from DiCaprio who completely inhabits his role as Costigan - and it was his emotional journey which enthralled me throughout and held my attention.

Vera Farmiga is the only standout female role as police shrink and Sullivan's troubled girlfriend Madolyn. She falls in love with Costigan, who is her patient - and frankly you can hardly blame her. Sullivan , in true sociopathic style, is shown to have precious little genuine interest in Madolyn's life and past as an individual beyond the confines of their own brief relationship. This is because he cannot reconcile his own discordant identity - the disjuncture between his cocky but deceitful adult self and his vulnerable child self which fears and worships Costello as the Svengali 'Daddy' who rules his life. He also suffers from bouts of impotence with Madolyn - again, a symptom of his inner confusion.

Madolyn is drawn to his brittle, glib charm, but soon repelled by his cold invulnerability. She is at heart a gentle soul, drawn to those who need her (like Costigan). Sullivan simply doesn't get why such an educated, accomplished woman as herself, could possibly want to earn so little doing the job she does. In some ways, Madolyn is the heart of the piece ... a soft, subtle, tremulous heart. And she is the only character with a future, with forward momentum. (BIG SPOILER AHEAD) Are we in fact supposed to believe that the child she is bearing at the end of the film is Sullivan's or Costigan's? I would like to believe it is Costigan's, and this is partly borne out by her forceful brushing aside of Sullivan at Costigan's funeral, even though Sullivan makes a plea on behalf of their child.

The most impressive small supporting role in this ensemble however, is Alec Baldwin as Ellerby, a gruff, cussing, witty bugger who has been downplayed in most reviews I have read so far. He is fully deserving of a special mention. Ray Winstone as Mr French has garnered good reports too, but he is never truly tested in this role - indeed any role?

As for the film itself - the setting, the cinematography, the direction, the scoring. On all fronts this is an excellent film, but not the formidable masterpiece being trumpeted by a determined phalanx of adoring critics and movie buffs. I have a lot of time for Scorcese. And yes I think it is a travesty that a director of his calibre, with his record, has never been rewarded with an Oscar. I also think his best work - for now at any rate - is well and truly in the past: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets and The King of Comedy. I also love The Age of Innocence. Goodfellas - to which The Departed been frequently and understandably compared - is exhilarating, suspenseful and also a much better film than The Departed in most departments (bar DiCaprio). In saying this of course, I am not dissing Scorcese's more recent works, which have regularly been superior to most other films on release.

The Departed is very long - even over-long. In this regard it lacks the snap and style of its Hong Kong forerunner Infernal Affairs. Many have praised the editing overseen by Thelma Schoonmaker. I'm not convinced. If anything this felt a little laboured at times, and some of the early scene juxtapositions are clumsily-executed. While it is good to see a contemporary film indulge at times in Old School-style ASLs which steer well clear of the 3-4 seconds commonly seen with so many super-quickfire, continuous editing vehicles blitzing our cinema and TV screens these days - I'll be honest and say that sometimes The Departed dragged - most particularly in the middle section and even towards the climactic end. In its favour, we have some remarkable lengthy scenes of high quality - for instance, when Costello confronts Costigan in a bar, aiming to ascertain his loyalty. Both actors are at the top of their game and the scene literally sizzles. There is another extensive, suspenseful scene between Sullivan and Costigan when they communicate, in tense silence, by mobile phone - neither daring to say a word.

Also in the film's favour, and in fact a true mark of excellence, is Scorcese's evocation of a threatening, violent atmosphere in the bars and streets of Boston's Southside. Indeed, Boston is lovingly portrayed - a generous move from a hardened New Yorker. Cinematographically the film is technically flawless, if a little pedestrian. Scorcese seems to have veered away from the sweeping cinematic vision of The Aviator and the obsessively intricate detailism of Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence. This is not in fact a criticism. The Departed is not flashy and nor should it be. (That's for Michael Mann). But neither is it especially exciting either.

Narratologically the film is generally well-paced, if a little saggy at times. It works as a two-hander focusing on the twin tales of Sullivan and Costigan - but Nicholson's Costello becomes too large and unwieldy a force in the centre of the film which destabilises what needs to be a finely-poised narrative. Scorcese needed to rein Nicholson in or at least edit some of him out - but it is understandable that the gusto of his performance held sway. It's such tremendous fun! But it does undo a lot of Scorcese's good work. What could have been a tightly-woven, succinctly-constructed and gripping narrative becomes a bit of a baggy monster at times. It is surely a credit to Scorcese's consummate skill and experience as a director that this film still packs a powerful emotional punch - but it could have been so much better. The script, penned by William Monahan of rather dubious Kingdom of Heaven fame, is really rather good, stuffed full of witticisms galore (yes, this is often a very funny film) and neat verbal parries. It's sufficiently meaty material for Scorcese and his cast to work with well.

One final sour note - the music. Occasionally Scorcese's choice in performer and song is inspired, but by and large the musical scoring here is abominable - a travesty from the usually reliable Howard Shore. Not only is it abominable but it is bloody persistent too, pervading each and every moment - we rarely enjoy a moment's peace. Sometimes the scoring is little more than a ditzy-sounding syntho-poppy thing, bleating interminably in the manner of tasteless elevator muzak or a low-volume transistor radio which someone forgot to switch off.

So does The Departed match up to its source material Infernal Affairs? Yes, it does - just. I preferred the cut and thrust and pacey momentum of the Hong Kong original - but I was more moved by Leonardo DiCaprio than Tony Leung as the undercover cop (although Leung was marvellous too, which says more about how highly I rate DiCaprio in this instance). DiCaprio's story carried me through this film - not Nicholson's high-faluting antics and dark dramatics, nor even Damon's subtly enervated complexities.

Will Scorcese win an Oscar for this film? I haven't a clue, although there are many who feel violence a la Scorcese is not the Academy's bag. Frankly the violence here didn't over-awe ... it didn't really 'awe' at all actually, but then I'm a hard-boiled old thing who's seen and digested a lot of blood and gore, (in the cinematic sense of course). So with that in mind The Departed has as good a chance as any I guess to scoop top honours. I rather hope it doesn't, although I will be plugging for DiCaprio to take Best Actor for his scintillating work here.

1 comment:

Juanita's Journal said...

Is The Departed quite what it's been cracked up to be?
In a word. NO.

In a word. YES. It's probably one of my more favorite Scorcese films. I certainly prefer it over what I consider to be an overrated "MEAN STREETS".