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The Departed

The Departed (Scorsese, 2006)

This review contains spoilers for this movie, and half-remembered ones for Infernal Affairs.

After my lukewarm reaction to The Aviator and the fact that I hadn't seen this in about a decade, I was a little worried about revisiting this after all these years. The fact that certain lines and images (*cough* the closing shot *cough*) had become something of a running joke in the internet circles I'd frequented and the fact that I hadn't seen it since maybe my high school days had me primed for an embarrassing relic of the 2000s. Thankfully, the movie held up extremely nicely when I revisited it this past weekend. (It's almost like teenage me had good taste, a quality I've managed to shed over the years.) Is it obvious at times? Of course, but I feel that's intentional on Scorsese's part. The way The Irishman seems intended to correct audience misreadings of his work, The Departed also seems to spell out his recurring concerns as bluntly as possible, possibly for the dum-dums in the audience. (It even flirts with self parody at times, dropping "Gimme Shelter" multiple times during the movie.) It's no surprise that this was the movie that finally won him Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.

Did you know that Scorsese is interested in how Catholicism burrows into its believers' psyches? Well, with the extremely on the nose closing shot and other moments (a certain character's arms splayed out in Christ-like formation, hellish red lighting, crude dialogue regarding sexual abuse), now you know. Did you know that loyalties founded on ethnic lines can actually be toxic? In switching perspectives from his usual Italian gangsters to Irish ones (and with Italians and Chinese criminals at the fringes), the meaninglessness of these alliances becomes more obvious. Did you know that a life of crime actually doesn't pay? With enough scenes of low level criminals performing demeaning work or otherwise sitting on their ass, you get the hint. He's also not blind to the economic motivations of the characters in their pursuit of a life of crime. Both main characters are born into seemingly destitute circumstances. One of them (Matt Damon) sees a local criminal as a rare exception to the squalor around him and immediately falls into his orbit, leveraging the support of his criminal benefactors into a genteel, almost white collar version of success. The other (Leonardo DiCaprio) keeps toiling away, his undercover work as a low level criminal proving just as his experience growing up. Modern technology figures into the plot in the form of stolen microprocessors and high-tech surveillance (a character excitedly shouts "Patriot Act! Patriot Act!" during a sting), something that might seem cool or flashy in another director's hands but highlights the fundamental banality of the enterprise here.

None of these elements are especially subtle, but what makes them resonate is their forceful assembly, in particular thanks to the aggressive cross-cutting. (The Scorsese-Schoonmaker team is one of the most formidable in cinema in this respect.) There's an appreciation for the harsh morality and rigid arcs of classic gangster films, the DNA of which mixes strikingly with grittier modern crime cinema. When the movie reaches its bloody denouement, the Rube-Goldberg-like intricacy with which it plays out gives it a thunderous impact. It's been a while since I've seen Infernal Affairs, of which this is a remake, but I don't remember it hitting quite as hard in this regard. And if I recall correctly, it has two love interests for the protagonists instead of the one major female character here, meaning there's no last minute realization by the villain that he's been cuckolded the whole time by the man whose funeral he's attending. Both characters struggle with their identities and the increasingly tense web they've spun throughout the film, but DiCaprio has the last laugh from beyond the grave.

The film is also a masterclass in casting, which lends it additional power. DiCaprio can sometimes be a bit obvious or strained, something I struggled with in The Aviator, but I think that quality serves him exceedingly well here as an undercover cop. If we can see the calculation in his performance, can the criminals around him see through him as well? Damon seems chosen in part for his slight resemblance to DiCaprio, but his natural pomposity is appropriate for his character's aspirations towards respectability, and is a great match by the smugness exuded by his colleague Alec Baldwin. (Here and in The Aviator, Scorsese makes great use of Baldwin's distinct mix of of genteel machismo. At different points in both movies, he practically whips it out.) Jack Nicholson's "Cool Jack" shtick has always struck me as a little sleazy, and he takes that to sickening extremes here, a man without a filter, shoving his appetites in your face relentlessly. (In one of his first scenes, he makes untoward comments towards an underage girl who he later grooms to be his girlfriend.) If this is supposed to be an aspirational figure, it only drives home how dismal a life of crime really is. (It's worth noting that one element likely intended to make him seem unctuous, his ownership of a porno house, makes him seem like a heroic proprietor of an independent theatre these days. I bet they don't play superhero movies at this joint. I also remember an amusing anecdote about Nicholson trying to ad lib setting another character on fire, only to realize his glass was filled with a soft drink.)

As DiCaprio's handlers, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg serve as each other's foils. The former is warm and paternal (perhaps the only such character in the movie, which perhaps telegraphs his fate), the latter is a source of unmitigated douchebaggery. Wahlberg is not someone I'd consider a great actor normally, but in the hands of the right director and placed (usually) out of his element, he can be extremely effective. (I'd cite Boogie Nights, Three Kings and Pain and Gain as the other high points of his career. And maybe The Happening, although unintentionally in that case.) Here, surrounded by obviously better actors, he channels that insecurity into foul-mouthed indignation, serving as a tenuous moral pillar in a world hellbent on doing away with them. (He's also the clearest source of comic relief in this grim movie. Every line, snarled in his nigh impenetrable Boston accent, is a howler.) Is Marky Mark the key to holding this movie together? Probably not, but he's an essential piece of the intricate, thrilling puzzle that is The Departed.