Monday, October 09, 2006

The Departed

I've been a long time admirer of Martin Scorsese's works and I generally like most films starring Jack Nicholson, but bringing together two silver screen icons isn’t necessarily a recipe for success. However, when I read the glowing reviews this film got in the press I just had to see it - and I wasn't disappointed.

The Departed is a tense thriller full of twists and turns and remains unpredictable right to the very end. In many ways it is the standard Scorsese gangster flick in the mould of Goodfellas or Mean Streets with its macho posturing and graphic violence. Scorsese makes a successful transition from his familiar stomping ground of the Italian community in New York to the Irish community in Boston. Jack Nicholson in the role Scorsese normally reserves for Bob de Niro puts in a virtuoso performance as sadistic Boston Irish gangster chief Frank Costello.

Matt Damon is Colin Sullivan the clean cut high flying cop who works his way through the ranks to become a senior detective, but who in reality is acting as a mole on the inside for Costello. Leonardo di Caprio, by contrast is the thug from the ghetto turned cop sent by the Boston police department to work undercover to infiltrate Frank Costello's gang. We have the paradox of criminal and cop leading parallel lives, but in this case each character leads a double life as both criminal and cop. The fine line between the two occupations is brought to light by Nicholson's character who observes “what's the difference when your'e looking down the barrel of a gun".

It is inevitable that di Caprio and Damon will finally came face to face with each other and the mounting tension is reminiscent of Michael Mann's Heat which pits Bob De Niro's gangster against his arch nemesis detective played by Al Pacino.

Di Caprio's situation mirrors that of Johnny Depp's undercover cop sent to infiltrate a Mafia cell in Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco. There is a prevailing sense of claustrophobia inherent in Costigan's predicament fuelled by the fear that his cover could be blown at any time.

There is also an excellent supporting cast. Ray Winstone makes the effective transition from his usual role of East End cockney gangster to Boston-Irish gangster with a convincing accent to match. Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg are brilliantly played against each other as Di Caprio's handlers in the classic nice cop/nasty cop scenario. Vera Farmiga, however in one of the two token female roles of police psychiatrist is not really given the chance to develop her character.

There are sporadic references to the Irish community in Boston with the common theme of immigrants striving to improve their social standing - by entering the priesthood, the police or the criminal underworld - or in this case both of the latter two. The influence of the Catholic church is never far away. An early scene depicts a young Sullivan as an altar boy and later on there is the inference that Costello is extorting money from a local priest in return for keeping quiet about alleged paedophile activities. The theme of young boys running errands for local mobsters

We have a community similar to that depicted in Barry Levinson's Sleepers or Scorsese's Goodfellas. Young boys begin their apprenticeships in crime by running errands for local mobsters. Society is safe for ordinary people as long as they remain silent about the criminal activities of the friendly neighbourhood crime syndicate, as in the scene where a woman refuses to cooperate with the police who are investigating the death of her own son. There is a general air of moral corruption to which omnipresent church leaders turn a blind eye

Scorsese uses occasional shots of the Boston skyline with the cry of sea gulls in the background to great effect. One of the more memorable scenes involves Damon as gangster's mole chasing Di Caprio as undercover infiltrator through the streets of the city's Chinese quarter.

The Departed is based on a Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, so in effect is another American rehashing of a foreign flick, but not having seen the original I'll reserve judgment on this. Overall, it's an enjoyable cat and mouse thriller and not without its moments of black humour.


Lorainne said...

The Departed was excellent - fast paced, sometimes amusing and with a well written script it did not have the lack of dialogue common in many action films. There was some humour - such as the scene where Costellos girlfriend is happily engrossed in a book called 'Getting Pregnant'whilst the gang are tooling up for the next killing spree and Costello demands a quick f**k before they go. There is strong emphasis on the importance of community and the Boston Irish community are all complicit in perpetuating the criminality, as they are all either involved or too afraid to speak out. The fact that for working class immigrants being a cop or a gangster are both presented as paralell and equally worthy career paths is interesting and in reality from a moral point of view there seems little difference between the two.

CW said...

Good point Lorainne. I also thought the music was good - hard rock fused with Irish trad from the Dropkick Murphys, a Boston band whom I've had the pleasure of seeing live when they supported the Pogues - and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" sung by Van Morrison - symbolising the lifestyles depicted in the film - or am I reading too deeply into it?

Lorainne said...

The good thing about all forms of art: film, literature, fine art is that you can read as deeply into it as you want. Irrespective of the original intentions of the artist/author.

Bruce said...

I watched The Departed the other night in a cinema in Northern Ireland - the latest Scorsese is a 'must see' for me - and was not disappointed. All the dark ingredients are there and likewise the interplay between visceral physicality (mostly violence) and a well-stitched intellectual fabric. By that I mean the compelling idea that 'the Irish are immune to psychoanalysis' (Freud quote of the year) which gives pertinence to the exploitation of a female psychoanal(ys)ist as the go-between and ultimate victim of the Irish lads respective mire-and-blood complexities. My companion of the evening pointed out with feminine distain that Farmiga was a little old to be successful with the young bucks (rookies, actually) who supplied the plot-line but in a fold-together way they worked a near perfect Rorchstadt, at least for traumaturgic purposes. There was an air of Spanish Tragedy about the whole which raised it above common cop movie. At the same time, it did topple a little into cut-out melodrama - the falling body of Martin Sheen's character was boundlessly dramatic and then suddenly limply iconic. (The hunting down of Nicholson at the end, and his Count Dracula-type demise - all bloody gob and unkillability in his JCB-scoop death-bed - was premised on the idea that the cops a hundred yards away were suddenly striken with Meniere's disease and couldn't hear a virtual symphony of gun-shots.) Genre is the dominant impreession of the movie and once one settles into that, the question of the interchangeability of Irish and Italian mobs becomes virtually theoretical - with the difference that 'Irish' is a licence to prate about choir boys and paedophiles and (more importantly) that Irish are by definition cops and robbers (both). The man with the Glasgow accent mentioned somewhere was surely intended to be an IRA man, for added topicality. His absorption into a criminal gang represents a rather cant judgement on that force, notwithstanding their capacity to disgrace themselves. Let me add one more thing: I found the climax anti-climactic and the way Matt Dillon talked his way out of the blood boltered shambles in the lift unconvincing. I suppose the cops did too since his assassin seemed to be a deputy of theirs, albeit with mask and cotton oversocks. diCapri was thoroughly engaging, Dillon merely passable. Reflections on his momentary impotence were only bettered (worsened?) by daft thing Farmiga had to say about the gender of the incipient Irishman she was carrying in her tummy, and who became the ultimate legatee of the unanalysable complexities of the Boston Irish (mar yah). Taking this all together, a good film but a bit of a hype where ethnicity is concerned: the stereotype talking back to the contemporary reality with a distinctly stage-Irish brogue. More Boucicault than Eugene O'Neill. Long live the Shaughran!


CW said...

A sound analysis, Bruce. Yes, the ending was somewhat anti-climactic - I thought it would end in the warehouse with Nicholson's demise, but the subsequent plot twist was interesting, not to mention unexpected. Farmiga as "ultimate legatee of the unanalysable complexities of the Boston Irish" is certainly a point worth noting. Not sure if the Freud quote is genuine though!

Anonymous said...

I've looked it up, the Freud quote was fake.

CW said...

Not surprised. Somehow it just didn't ring as true.

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