Scorsese goes back to the mean streets, and it should finally win him an Oscar
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
Right from the opening scene, as Gimme Shelter comes up on the soundtrack, along with the leathery voice of Jack Nicholson, sounding like the devil on his day off, The Departed enters the bloodstream with the rush of a warm, familiar drug. We’re back in the mean streets of vintage Martin Scorsese. Nicholson and Scorsese have never worked together, and theirs is a divine match made in hell. As for Gimme Shelter, after using it in both Goodfellas and Casino, the director seems to have adopted its menacing riff as his own apocalyptic signature. It heralds his homecoming to a world of gangs, guns and rock ’n’ roll, where (to quote another Stones song) “every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints.” It’s that old Mafia contact sport of truth or consequences. And Scorsese has never been more on top of his game.
The Departed is his best movie since Goodfellas (1990). After the overarching spectacle of Gangs of New York and The Aviator, two period epics that strained for significance, his
new crime thriller arrives as an exhilarating return to form. Scorsese has the peculiar distinction of being the greatest living director never to win an Academy Award. With five failed nominations for best director, he’s long overdue. And if this movie doesn’t do the trick, it’s hard to imagine what will.
Based on an austere Hong Kong crime thriller, Infernal Affairs (2002), The Departed doesn’t feel like a remake—perhaps because screenwriter William Monahan adapted the script without seeing the original movie. He transplanted the plot to his home turf of Boston, where the bars and backrooms of the Irish mafia seem just a,shot away from New York’s Little Italy in Goodfellas.
Yet The Departed is a departure for Scors-
ese. It’s his first movie in two decades that is set in the present. One of the most suspenseful scenes involves a high-noon showdown between two protagonists meeting for the first time—on cellphones. Yes, two protagonists. This is one Scorsese movie that doesn’t follow a Christ figure on a road to perdition. It’s a drama of deception and loyalty that pivots between two equally matched male leads, mirror images of each other.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon play Billy and Colin, cops with the Massachusetts state police working as double agents on opposite sides of the law. They’re both from “Southie,” the working-class neighbourhood of South Boston. Billy goes undercover for the police, infiltrating the mob by winning the trust
of Irish crime boss Frank Costello (Nicholson); Colin works as a mole for the mob, tipping off Costello as he rises to the top of an elite unit charged with bringing him down.
In classic Scorsese style, The Departed is a dirty bomb of jagged violence and lacerat-
ing profanity (only the c-word really cuts it these days). The director sets the tone early with a barroom scene of DiCaprio’s character trying to establish his criminal street cred. First he hammers his fist into a man’s face until his hand breaks. In frustration, he grabs a coat rack and uses it as a pitchfork to bludgeon him—an upgrade of the ballpoint-pen assault in Goodfellas, from the Martha Stewart school of improvising with household items. Now cut to DiCaprio with a fresh cast on his arm: we just know what’s going to happen to that. The whole sequence unfolds with the inevitability of a blues progression.
Scorsese wields violence as form of savage wit. But it’s never gratuitious. In Hollywood dramas, violence usually provides a
release of sort, as an act of glorious vengeance, fabulous destruction or noble sacrifice. In a time of war and terrorism, it’s refreshing to see violence presented in its raw state. For Scorsese, the act has no sentimental baggage. It’s not tragic. It’s nasty and extreme and sudden. Unlike a whole range of Hollywood directors, from Peckinpah to Spielberg to Tarantino, Scorsese is not fond of reverb in action scenes. He likes to chop them in the middle. In The Departed, even when serving up something as conventional as a fireball, he cuts before it’s finished exploding—slicing it like a melon. There’s nothing more brutal than a Scorsese edit.
Violence in movies gets discussed, and often condemned, as if it’s some kind of alien
®life form at loose on the screen.
But for Scorsese, violence erupts directly from character, through lesions in the social fabric. In that sense, The Departed bears an affinity to David Cronenberg’s A History ofViolence. Interviewed about his own movie, Cronenberg aligned himself directly with Scorsese: “Tarantino’s violence is fantasy violence,” he told me. “It’s bogus. Whereas the violence in Taxi Driver is ex-
VIOLENCE IS NOT TRAGIC. IT’S NASTY AND EXTREME AND SUDDEN.
tremely disturbing because it feels real.” In A History ofViolence, he added, “the violence is businesslike—functional, not fancy. And very intimate. It’s the Mean Streets syndrome: you can either become a priest or join the mob.”
Scorsese, who flirted with the priesthood before becoming a filmmaker, is obsessed by the soul’s ability to swing both ways. And although The Departed occupies a larger canvas than A History ofViolence, it too is a drama of double identity. DiCaprio and Damon, babyfaced doppelgängers with matching crewcuts, converge from opposite corners of an intrigue worthy of Hitchcock. Both possess a venomous charisma. DiCaprio wears his on the outside, as a criminal mask of rage and turmoil. Damon is diabolically typecast as Mr. Nice Guy, a picture of nonchalant charm with an insidious agenda behind the smile. DiCaprio’s is the more complex performance. After being forever branded as Titanic’s heartthrob, then grappling with larger-than-life roles in both Gangs of New York and The Aviator, this underestimated actor finally gets to unleash the kind of controlled intensity that Scorsese discovered in the young Robert De Niro.
“As an actor,” says Scorsese, “I knew Leo would convey the conflict of a young man who has gotten himself into a bad situation and then wonders what the hell he is doing
there. You can see it in his face; you can see it in his eyes. He knows how to express emotional impact without saying a word.”
As Costello, the father figure Billy and Colin both report to, Nicholson creates a mellowed version of a character he can play in his sleep: Lucifer as a wise, wicked playboy. “I don’t want to be a product of my environment,” he drawls. “I want my environment to be a product of me.” But under the tight leash of Scorsese’s realism, Nicholson
doesn’t overplay it. Those famous eyebrows are kept in check by a director with the heaviest brows in the business. And Jack trumps himself with a cognac-fine distillation of his whole repertoire of satanic majesties. He’s never been snakier. Apparently, he doctored the script with some of his own Dionysian touches. Costello, who likes his women two at a time, boasts about his ageless libido. In the movie’s one drug scene, before burying his face in a lady’s bottom, he powders it with a giant bowl of cocaine.
The testosterone doesn’t end there. Among the supporting cast, it acquires a harder edge. Mr. French (Ray Winstone), who serves as Costello’s muscle, has the personality of an abused pit bull and a world view to match: America, he observes, is “a nation of fuckin’ rats.” Among the police brass, a caustic Alec Baldwin and a pugnacious Mark Wahlberg have a straight-razor delivery right out of David Mamet. Wahlberg reveals surprising power, as if he’d been waiting his whole life to explode in a Scorsese film. But then he was raised in working-class Boston. “I didn’t have to do much homework,” he says. “I’ve known a lot of these guys—I was playing one of the cops who used to arrest me all the time.” Among all these men, there’s just one woman, a police psychiatrist named Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), who has to be shared. Madolyn is a male fantasy version of Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s shrink in The Sopranos: she’s younger, sexier and has more trouble respecting boundaries. And her whole métier of treating posttraumatic stress among cops is up for ridicule. “They signed up to used their weapons, but they watch TV and think they’ve got to weep,” says Billy. “There is no one more full of shit than a cop, except for a cop on TV.”
In this movie, every character is founded
on deceit, and the shrink is not immune as she succumbs first to the expert flirtation of the boyish, clean-cut Damon, then to DiCaprio’s dangerous charisma. A juicy dilemma. On reflection, the symmetry of it all—two boys, a girl and a godfather-seems too good to be true. But even with a running time of almost 2V2 hours, The Departed hurtles by with such compelling force there’s no time to notice, or care. This kind of violence, like a vintage Stones tune, is something you don’t stop to question. M
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