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October 25, 2006

The Departed isn't about anything yet Scorsese shows he has more cinematic verve than any film maker alive, argues Christopher Peachment: The Departed - Martin Scorsese

Posted by Christopher Peachment

The Departed
Directed by Martin Scorsese
certificate 18, 2006

There comes a moment in a few artists' lives when suddenly everyone is calling them "The greatest living…". This occurred to Martin Scorsese at a moment in the early 1980s, a year or two after he had made Raging Bull. The critics had not all praised that film, nor did they predict the greatness later attributed to it. But opinion formed quickly, aided by word of mouth, and within two years everyone was proclaiming it his greatest film, and pinning "The greatest living…" medal on him.

I first met him in the summer of 1983 and asked him how he felt about having that label around his neck. He said, clutching his temples,

Duck - Duck and run. Whenever anyone says that about you, its time to run for cover. You're doomed.
He didn't run for cover, but continued producing films at the rate of nearly one a year. And he hasn't escaped the fate he saw waiting.

He has yet to win an Oscar, and his films since Raging Bull have proved variable. His next, The King of Comedy, did badly at the box office, and earned one headline:

Scorsese and De Niro made a comedy. So why aren't they laughing?
History proved more kind to the film, realising that it is very penetrating about the corrosion done to the soul by celebrity, and is no kind of comedy. The Color of Money was a belated sequel to The Hustler, and lacklustre by comparison. Cape Fear was a straight remake of a frightening original, and an atrocious misjudgement. The Age of Innocence was the man proving he could do a Merchant-Ivory film better than Merchant-Ivory, the definition of a pointless exercise. Kundun continued Scorsese's exploration of religion, but was wan. Bringing Out the Dead was written by Paul Schrader and had his appalled fascination for urban squalor, but lacked importance.

Only Goodfellas came anywhere near Scorsese's earlier popularity, re-treading his love for made men and hideous violence. Young men liked it. Older men were tired of a director who lingered too long to be healthy over a man getting his head crushed in a vice.

Only Casino was as good as his best, and he might have found a new audience because of the diamond-hard performance of Sharon Stone. Given his track record with women, it's also possible he didn't notice her. He once said that:

movies and religion are the only two things in my life.
No one is on oath when being interviewed, but that is a statement eloquent for what he has left out. Especially from a man five times married.

It has been 26 years now since Raging Bull. Scorsese has turned 64 now, and I am being unjustly harsh. An artist, any artist, only has a few great works in him, and all return to those three or four great preoccupations, when their heart first opened.

The Departed is a return to the mean streets with which he made his name. It is the Boston Irish mafia rather than the Italian mob of Little Italy, but the feel is the same. It's a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, which Scorsese claims not to have seen until after he read William Monahan's script. It doesn't matter, because from the opening sequence, the marks are all there, this could only be a Scorsese film.

The setup is simple. Inside the Irish mob, there lurks a police mole. And inside the local police force, there sits a mob mole.

From this evolves a complex tale of deceit, betrayal, and revenge. Scorsese is on form right from the pre-credit sequence in which we see Jack Nicholson enforcing his iron grip on the streets as the mob boss, ensnaring the young Matt Damon and putting him through police academy so that, when high-placed, he can warn Nicholson of the cops' next move.

It is a bravura sequence, done with Scorsese's trademarks. A fluid tracking camera which carries the viewer into the heart of the action with mounting dread, a soundtrack of pounding rock, and Thelma Schoonmaker's whiplash editing. She has been responsible for editing most of his great moments and deserves a lifetime's Oscar.

There are shots in this sequence, such as a full-dress Irish cops' outdoor convention, complete with marching pipe band, which must have cost enough money to fund a small British film. In the staccato scheme of things they are on screen for two seconds, before being superseded by the next punch to the eye. It's a sequence which tells a two-hour story in five minutes and, yet again, Scorsese shows he has more cinematic verve than any film maker alive.

His most radical move though is in assembling an excellent list of actors, and securing good performances from the least likely of them. Leonardo DiCaprio, as the undercover cop inside the mob, is fast becoming Scorsese's new muse since the retirement of De Niro, now content to do slack comedies. He looked lost in Gangs of New York, a spavined film thanks to interference from the producer. But his Howard Hughes in The Aviator, marked a coming of age, and showed obsessive neurosis without cliché. In The Departed he is a man strung out to the end of his tether by the erosion of his identity. And his descent into rat-like fury is frightening.

His is the best in a film of fine performances. Matt Damon has been an unconvincing psychotic in The Talented Mr Ripley, a role they should have given to the shifty Jude Law. He was lost among the other ten of the gang in Ocean's Eleven, and blank in the Bourne films. Here for the first time, there's a knowing charm reminiscent of William Holden, another actor with a long face.

So too with Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg, two actors previously without any sense of reality. Baldwin is a sweaty, fat cop chief, past his better days, but still in there swinging. And Wahlberg is a foul-mouthed, obnoxious cop who is DiCaprio's undercover control. Neither man has been as good before, and the film should signpost a career change for both of them.

As for the star, there is nothing new to say. Once again, Jack is Jack. And yet again, he gets away with it by a hair's breadth. I doubt if even Scorsese has the strength to rein him in, or extract a performance which mines evil, rather than relishes blood lust. Many critics cited his early line,

I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.
But that was just the scriptwriter delineating character early on. What Hollywood calls "establishing the moral ground", whatever that means.

Far better was a throwaway line, after he had asked a gang member how his mother was doing, and been told that she is "on the way out". Jack says,
We all are, act accordingly.
It's not emphasised, but Jack knows to an inch the distance a throwaway line can be thrown.

Everyone is saying Scorsese is back on form. That may be so, but he isn't on his best form, he is just better than he has been for a long time. There is still the woman problem. There is only one woman in the film, and she is so neglected that already I have forgotten who she is or what she did. But at bottom, the problem with The Departed is that it isn't about anything.

Raging Bull was about boxing, but you didn't have to be a boxer to see that Scorsese knew nothing about boxing. Raging Bull's true subject was masochism.

By the same token The Departed is about the mob. You could cite betrayal as its theme, which is emphasised with a heavy hand by a final shot of a rat. A lot gets done and a lot gets said, but, finally, what's up on the screen is all that the film is about. There's nothing underneath.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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