It’s hilarious, of course, Scorsese finally won an Oscar for the film least like his work. The Departed is the really serious movie Mel Gibson and Richard Donner never got around to making in the late 1990s… but Scorsese–I don’t know if Scorsese adds something to the mix or if he just knew how to package the product. I imagine he finally won because The Departed showed he was firmly committed, finally, to being commercial. But there’s something subversive in Departed’s commercial sensibilities. Scorsese and his technical crew (cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker) loose on a Hollywood picture (the connections to, say, The Devil’s Own are more plentiful than not). Schoonmaker’s editing in the film is her most innovative work because it’s new–the way the story’s being told is new… from Ballhaus’s lighting, Schoomaker’s editing, and Scorsese’s digital happy (but it’s shot on film) shots. The IMDb trivia section talks about CG composites for the film and maybe they’re an indicator… Yes, The Departed is another Scorsese mob movie (but one without storytelling sprawl), but it’s a CG-friendly, Irish Scorsese mob movie.
My friend told me, after he saw the film, it was a comedy. I never quite understood him, until maybe ten minutes in. The Departed takes all the great humor from Goodfellas (and all the stuff from Casino but makes it work) and expands on it. You’re supposed to leave, if not laughing, at least amused. It’s a Martin Scorsese blockbuster, meant to engage you and worry you (Scorsese creates a palpable, pulsating sense of dread) and excite you and then spit you out. Scorsese does such a perfect job with the technical aspects and the legitimacy of the film’s story (not having a Nicholas Pileggi non-fiction to fall back on), it doesn’t matter the film’s got a certain apathy to itself.
The apathy comes through clearest in the case of Leonardo DiCaprio. While Matt Damon gets to run wild–sort of Good Will Hunting gone bad–and have as much fun as everyone else (the film’s filled with wild, wonderful performances), DiCaprio’s the serious one here. His character spends the entire film miserable and the viewer spends the entire film waiting for him to get even a moment of relief. It’s a solid performance from DiCaprio, but pales compared to his supporting cast. DiCaprio’s story, the one the film doesn’t tell, is the traditional Scorsese story (though, still a little more commercial than usual). But somehow the mix of humor and dread make it all disappear–The Departed is about what happens and Scorsese understands (though I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film with that intent of his before–not even Cape Fear–though I’ve missed the other DiCaprio collaborations) how to use the advance from the viewer to the film’s advantage.
Given how odd a Scorsese movie it is, I’ve ignored Jack Nicholson this long. It’s not going to be particularly exciting, unfortunately… For about thirty years, Nicholson has had a standard crazy performance… in The Departed, he finally manages to turn it in to a character. Maybe all it needed all along was a Scorsese mob movie (Nicholson’s character, Irish heritage aside, resembles a smarter Scorsese Joe Pesci character). Seeing Nicholson finally get those roles to pay off is great.
The rest of the actors–Ray Winstone, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin–are all great. Vera Farmiga is quite good too, though most of her role is spent reacting to the male leads… she’s practically tacked on to the film for a female presence. It’s no surprise her role is the one without the looseness (she and DiCaprio’s scenes together, though contrived, provide a nice, non-plot-driven break… if only because, after a bunch of red herrings, the scenes don’t really affect the film’s events).
The Departed is easily Scorsese’s worst great film… the lack of artistic ambition is stunning, but Scorsese gets it too and he works with it, makes it not matter.
Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by William Monahan, based on a screenplay by Mak Siu-Fai and Felix Chong; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Kristi Zea; produced by Brad Pitt, Brad Grey and Graham King; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Billy Costigan), Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan), Jack Nicholson (Frank Costello), Mark Wahlberg (Dignam), Martin Sheen (Queenan), Ray Winstone (Mr. French), Vera Farmiga (Madolyn), Alec Baldwin (Ellerby) and Anthony Anderson (Brown).