The Departed: Scorsese's lightweight retread
Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, The Departed, is heavy on testosterone, brutal violence, foul language, and dark, bloody humor. In other words, it’s vintage Scorsese, and a pointed return to the landscape of his most enduring films, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, and Raging Bull. He has rejected the epic canvas of his most recent movies, Gangs of New York and The Aviator, pictures that swept across generations, for the hermetic, contemporary world of South Boston gangsters and cops.
The Departed is a remake of Infernal Affairs, a popular Hong Kong action picture that was convoluted, entertaining, and, when all was said and done, lightweight. The Departed is less convoluted which makes it more entertaining, but it is just as lightweight. The film has much to recommend it. It is fierce and funny, and relentlessly suspenseful…the visual equivalent of a rubber band being stretched tighter and more taut with each scene, until it snaps in an extended spasm of violence. The performances are vibrant, full of passion and life, and a great cast of actors shine in nearly every scene. And it is refreshing to see Scorsese returning to the macho terra firma of queasy brutality and shifting alliances that are the earmarks of his brilliant career. But something is missing: in the movie and in the shower of praise from the nation’s top critics, who are no doubt as anxious as I am for Scorsese to finally win the Oscar for Best Picture which he has so richly deserved but never won in his career.
What’s missing in The Departed is the essential grounding element in his early great work, starting with Who’s That Knocking At My Door and continuing through Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Casino. And that element is the weight of a moral dilemma, the sense that some catastrophe of the soul is in process, exposing all the disloyalty and violence for what it is: the immature howls of impotence from depraved and stunted men. There has always been great empathy for Scorsese’s gangsters and killers and psychos because they are so psychically wounded, far beyond the ability to perceive their own pathos. They are sad and fascinating. But in The Departed, the cops and the crooks are mainly just shooting at each other, full of bravado, and although flummoxed by the difference between right and wrong, they get over it. So The Departed is Scorsese-light.
Having said that, the picture is also bracing and alive, and most of its vitality rests on the shoulders of its cast: Jack Nicholson as the Dr. Demento godfather; Matt Damon as the gangster pretending to be the cop; Leonardo DiCaprio as the cop pretending to be the gangster; Ray Winstone, almost unrecognizable, as Nicholson’s right hand man; Martin Sheen as the head of an elite police unit, and, in perhaps the meatiest, funniest bits, Mark Whalberg and Alec Baldwin, as two wisecracking police officers. Watching The Departed is like being witness to a herd of hungry male hyenas, feasting on a fresh and tasty script, snarling, chewing, spitting and belching out their lines and expletives with a sated roar. Great acting, good movie. But I still think Scorsese’s got another film, a better film, still to come.