New Scorsese film is unjustifiably grotesque

by Beacon Staff • October 4, 2006

Judging by the advertisements, The Departed promises a return to the grimey, gritty days of Scorsese's classics. After Gangs of New York and The Aviator, Martin Scorsese appears to be stepping onto the mean streets again using violence and criminality as a form of moral and social criticism.

There is no doubt that he's brought back the violence; this is the most graphic Scorsese has ever been. However, despite Scorsese's presence, the film's heightened style and his stance on corruption and deception, The Departed lacks a clear sense of purpose. Scorsese is no longer in the tumultuous 1970s and despite the professionalism of the film, the end result feels more vulgar than satisfying.

Adapted from the Chinese crime thriller Infernal Affairs, the setting is moved to South Boston with the state police force as its primary focus. Two men, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), are training for the force.

Sullivan gets a position, while Costigan is given a low-paying undercover job because of shady mob relations in his family.

In the first of many twists, Costigan turns out to be clean while Sullivan is revealed as a mobster ally. He reports to Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a treacherous villain who depends upon Sullivan to tip him off when the police get too close. What Sullivan doesn't know is that Costello is also an FBI informant.

To complicate matters, Costigan is reassigned by the state police head, Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen), to go undercover as a member of Costello's gang and report his whereabouts and activities. Costigan reluctantly agrees and it is here, in the film's first hour, that Scorsese directs some of the most kinetic cinema since Goodfellas.

The opening moments of The Departed fly by with ferocious coherence. The scenes blend into one another with one elegant transition after the next. Screenwriter William Monahan creates firecrac-ker dialogue that ignites tense and giddy confrontations, especially between Nicholson and DiCaprio.

The juxtaposition between Costigan's life on the street and Sullivan's life as a policeman are woven together wi-th dizzying fluidity. Mob violence and police corruption switch back and forth until they slowly mold together. In only a matter of moments, Scorsese has dug beneath his slick and sexy surface and unearthed the big questions of morality and deception in American society.

Or has he?

His clear distinctions between DiCaprio's Costigan and Damon's Sullivan pave the way for deeper character and societal comparison, but finding nuance and depth in his leads proves more daunting than expected. In its first hour, The Departed uses the two leads as pawns for a bigger picture. But after the film settles down, DiCaprio and Damon still feel as enigmatic to us as when we first met them, which is a problem.

Scorsese works very little on the inner psychology of Costigan and Sullivan. In Scorsese's finer films, such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, the audience depends upon the first-person perspective to carry out the meaning behind his stories. In The Departed, it is difficult to empathize with any character in particular and, thus, impossible to care about the escalating human conflicts of the film, let alone its violence.

The plot thickens dramatically when both Costello and Queenan suspect that there is a rat in their separate crews. Sullivan is assigned to find the mole and, fearing his own discovery, tries to find the informant in Costello's mob. What was originally a quick-footed crime drama suddenly transforms itself into a drawn-out game of cat-and-mouse. The twists and turns are surprising and unexpected, but the gravity of the film loses its footing. What is left is shock value and a whole lot of blood and gore.

Nicholson's Costello is responsible for the majority of this carnage. Whether he's severing hands or shooting through heads, Costello relishes the act, as if he were biting into a juicy steak. Nicholson has portrayed a fair amount of lunatics, but this is easily one of the nastiest characters ever created in cinema.

So nasty, in fact, that his presence handicaps the movie's ability to retain its own dignity. This isn't to say that Nicholson isn't good; he'll likely receive an Oscar nomination for his performance.

The fault lies in Scorsese's choice to celebrate Costello's atrocities with irony and glee. Scorsese's tongue-in-cheek approach to Costello becomes sickening and grotesque, and when Costello walks off camera covered neck down in blood, you wonder whether the director is as depraved as the fictional mobster.

Martin Scorsese is not a lunatic; in fact, he is a brilliant director. However, The Departed leaves one feeling dirty and exhausted rather than exhilarated. In the end, the violence feels like a cop-out disguised as meaningful content. The best thing about The Departed is that it proves that Scorsese still has style to burn. But where are his shrewd visions and his cutting critiques? Hopefully not stuck in the 1970s.