The Departed Review
The dust has now settled and Martin Scorsese, longtime critical darling and longtime AMPAS exile, has won his first Oscar after remaking a Hong Kong cult classic. The obvious question may be was he deserving of the award for this film alone, or was it the recognition of an extraordinary filmmaking career, but I'm far more interested in The Departed itself. After all, it is a film that shows moments which are stunning and others which verge on the anaemic – a typical Martin Scorsese picture in as much that it is difficult to pin down and review tidily. Whilst I wouldn't even try to claim that Scorsese had any kind of personal affiliation with this subject matter – a sharp contrast to the connection he shared with the likes of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Gangs of New York and The Aviator – his latest picture does remain a worthy addition to his filmography.
Indeed, many will think that this picture is Scorsese "coming home". But, in actual fact, the real Scorsese is just as comfortable making films about fractured relationships as he is making gangster pictures. Similarly, many people may think that The Departed is the stylistic culmination of the director's abilities – and a testament to his favoured motifs – but in reality it is far more clinical and detached than the Scorsese we witnessed in the likes of Raging Bull and Mean Streets.
Whilst future generations may well regard The Departed as the ultimate Scorsese picture – after all, it took him so bloody long to capture that statuette – it amounts to nothing more than a vastly-entertaining romp which doesn't have the emotional depth, nor the sheer stylistic wizardry, to rate as the great man's greatest work. As a remake it is exemplary. As a showcase for budding screenwriters it is punchy and dramatic. As an actor's film it is nothing but solid. As an emotional experience, however, it is lacking.
Opening in Boston some years ago, we are introduced to one Frank Costello, a megalomaniac who boasts that "I want my environment to be a product of me." He goes on to set out his philosophy as thus: "Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying – we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn't get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That's what the niggers don't realise. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it's this – no one gives it to you. You have to take it."
The picture, expertly scripted by newcomer William Monahan, then proceeds to pitch this zealous gangster against rats both within his own outfit and within the Boston P.D. Like he says, "Cops or criminals…what I'm saying is: when you're facing a loaded gun…what's the difference?"
Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who is maturing with every film, plays Billy Costigan, a one-time low-life who has managed to force his way into the police department. Then recruited by Captain Queenan (an underused Martin Sheen) to lead an undercover operation against Costello and his bunch of merry murdering scum, Costigan is soon flailing in the waters of deception and false identity. At the same time, to complete this happy dichotomy of cinematic intrigue, Matt Damon's Colin Sullivan (a good, strong Irish name) is working for Costello from within the police department…
What makes The Departed so enjoyable is it's self-realisation that, at heart, it's little more than popcorn entertainment. Scorsese has abandoned the grandiose swaggering of his '90s and noughties epics for a film that is his most commercial, his most watchable. It might lack the reward and the intelligence of some of his other films, but it cannot be argued that Scorsese won his Oscar for anything but a film that boasts grandstanding performances, a sharp and witty script and a storyline that is so convoluted that it's actually damn entertaining.
There are some great lines and various thrilling set-pieces – hell, even a scene with a mobile phone is tense. DiCaprio, who missed out on an Oscar nomination in favour of his turn in Blood Diamond (the inferior film but with a DiCaprio performance which is more "emotionally diverse"), is the only actor who attempts to find the story's human core – and he does so admirably. Costigan is a hothead who is trying to prove his worth, both to himself and to those who knew his father. His family life is fractured; redemption, as in many Scorsese films, seems unattainable. Yet over the course of the film, along with Matt Damon's parallel character arc, we see a situation that is certainly salvageable – but at a high price.
I won't say that The Departed is a brilliant film. It has its flaws. Most notably, Scorsese seems slightly passive in terms of his direction – there are few moments of sheer Marty brilliance which we have seen in spades throughout his other work. The last shot, for example, is characteristic of a filmmaker who is way below the standard that Scorsese has cultivated since the 1970s. Similarly, Jack Nicholson has been far, far better. Ironically, instead of being impassive, he exhibits too many ADHD traits that he wears thin very quickly. He is clearly enjoying himself – the way he chews the scenery alongside his partner-in-crime Ray Winstone is fun to watch (and Winstone, dodgy Boston accent aside, is very watchable himself) – but you never get a true sense of the character. Indeed, the lack of believability is one of the main problems: if a Mafioso really acted in this bizarre, hyperactive manner, he'd surely be captured and or killed before he reached such dizzy heights. Granted, Monahan claims that The Departed is based on the life of South Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, but since Nicholson was given the leeway to improvise most of his dialogue and actions, little similarities seem to remain.
However, the rest of the acting ensemble are great – even "Marky Mark" Wahlberg gives a performance that proves he can be a magnetic, and very amusing, screen presence. Similarly, newcomer Vera Farmiga balances the appropriate levels of spunkiness and sincerity to allow the audience the chance to get inside the heads of both DiCaprio and Damon's characters. It doesn't half hurt that she's excellent eye candy, too.
Scorsese calls The Departed "my B-movie" and I think that tag is apt. It's fast-paced (the lengthy running time zips by), daring and, even though 2006 did not compare to previous years in terms of cinematic quality, I do feel that this film was the best of last year. The direction is the film's main talking point and whilst it is nothing short of technically fantastic, it does lack that little bit of "oooh" which was so characteristic of Scorsese's previous work. Visually, his usual signature style included the use of bold colours, the electric atmosphere of an urban night, sudden bouts of brutality and violence, wide compositions and ambitious tracking shots and smooth handheld camerawork which pursues characters within their environment. Whilst the bouts of brutality and viciousness are present in The Departed, it lacks both a stylistic and emotional core which would have transformed it from a very watchable, accomplished film into one that transcends genre and age.
Three version of the film have been released on American Region 1 DVD by Warner Bros. – this two-disc edition with all the extras, a one-disc widescreen edition with limited extras and, for the fools out there, a one-disc foolscreen edition. The menus are well designed and easy to use. A choice of English, French and Spanish subtitles is on offer for the main feature only.
Disappointingly, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer has drawn fire from the internet community and I agree with their criticisms. The image is overly soft and lacking in clarity; whilst the colours are faithfully reproduced, it clearly lacks the smooth, detailed look of many modern DVD transfers. The image is perfectly watchable but it could be much better. The audio, meanwhile, is very good indeed – Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mixes are available in English, French and Spanish. Dialogue is well presented and the surrounds are used to good effect.
Whilst two mini documentaries, "The Story of the Boston Mob" and "Crossing Criminal Cultures", are interesting and seemingly well researched, they tend to focus more on the film's historical background (especially Whitey Bulger) and Scorsese's traditional visual style. There is too little on the making of The Departed aside from a handful of briefly illuminating interviews with the main players.
The real gem, meanwhile, (and a Region 1 exclusive) is the "Scorsese on Scorsese" documentary. Running for 85 minutes, it is a chance for Marty to dissect his key films in detail. There are also nine additional and extended scenes, with introduction from Scorsese, which are interesting and add a bit more of a backbone to the main film. The film's (very good) theatrical trailer rounds off the package.
Whilst reviewers – myself included – find it difficult to discuss the film without making reference to the film's director and his belated Oscar victory, there is much to applaud and enjoy. It's not his greatest work by a long stretch but it's resoundingly entertaining and this Region 1 DVD is a good package, marred only by a slightly disappointing transfer. The absence of a Scorsese audio commentary doesn't help, either.