Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Four

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#4 — The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is a powerhouse, a movie that announces itself immediately as unusually kinetic and dynamic. One of the earliest sequences sets the tone as the film rushes through the development of the two main characters, a couple of south Boston kids who both grow up to be simultaneously involved with both the police and the area mobsters. It moves rapidly through their respective climbs, showing how they each become immersed in their dual worlds. The camera races along side them, anxious to capture it all, but equally agitated to cut away, get to the next step, the next moment the next scene, all stitched together with breathtaking skill by Scorsese’s regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. It has places it needs to get to, reams of story to rifle through. There’s no time for dawdling. This is a thundering race, a white knuckle melee skidding across blood-stained pavement. This is Scorsese in his element. This is Scorsese employing his trademark merging of raw unpredictability and precise control. This is Scorsese doing what he’s done for over forty years: making art with his camera, his vision, his drive, his dedication.

Adapted from the three Infernal Affairs movies directed by Wai-keung Lau and Alan Mak in 2002 and 2003, The Departed begins with a script by William Monahan that is a cascade of profane verbal tremors that rivals anything ever tapped out by David Mamet. It’s the language of men living on the edge of their mortality, tracking through minefields of interlaced loyalties and duplicity, using words as cutting weapons because weaponry is what their most comfortable with. A scathing aside is just another bullet. The film’s plot is dense and complicated, but it never becomes confusing. Monahan presents every detail with a shrewd clarity, knowing precisely which details to bring to the forefront, how to deploy his plot points in ways that they stick but don’t intrusively announce themselves. It’s a spectacular blueprint, and Scorsese assembles the corresponding structure masterfully.

The two main characters are both moles. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a cop who has erased the traces of his upstanding life so he can infiltrate the local underworld, bringing vital information back to his bosses in a special investigation unit with the Massachusetts State Police. Meanwhile, Matt Damon is a fellow officer whose childhood allegiances to the kingpin played by Jack Nicholson inspire him to share the top secret info he can collect about law enforcement operations meant to bring the mob down. This sets up an abundance of taut moments. More importantly, it gives Scorsese the chance to explore one of his favorite themes: the dueling nature of individuals, the internal war between callous, selfish base instincts and the desire to do good, to be noble, to turn away from negative qualities in favor of making the right choices. This conflict is personified in DiCaprio’s performance, a staggering tour de force of turmoil. He’s a tightly coiled spring that’s been heated and electrified, quaking and ready to go off in a dozen different ways. He’s feverishly alert to all the dangers surrounding him, and his own anxiety winds up being one of the greatest threats, leading him to compulsively reach out and lash out. For all the ways things can go wrong for him in his situation, it often seems like the most likely outcome is that he’ll wrench himself into some sort of personal oblivion, staring down the two cell phones that serves as lifelines to his two different identities, his two different families.

Scorsese and Monahan get an awful lot out of those little handheld communication devices. Cell phones are as ubiquitous in films as they are in the world outside the multiplex, but in films like this the creators are just as often seeking out ways to disable them, creating greater impediments for the heroes (watch an older thriller sometimes and consider just how often access to a cell phone would help clear things up or serve as quick conduit to rescue for someone in peril). In The Departed, the filmmakers think about how the cell phone would actually be employed by the people in these situations, how they’d be used to surreptitiously track people, how their most innocuous stored data like outgoing phone calls would be an investigative boon, how the constant, immediate access that the phones promise would shape expectations and create suspicions. It’s a simple thing, but a thing rarely done in other films where cell phones and other technological wonders are just empty props, there only because they need to be there to make the film seem accurate. Other films write around them; The Departed properly uses them as a vital storytelling tool.

It’s just one example of the way that everything is deeply thought through in the film. Ideas are followed to their logical conclusions and subtexts are fully explored and exploited. Every bit of the frame, every bit of set dressing or costume detail is contributing to the bigger picture, to the concepts at the core of the film. Nothing is there, it seems, just for the sake of it. Even the violence, which is as plentiful and brutal as Scorsese’s reputation would have you expect, has a different impact than usual. Bloody and rough as the film is, what’s more striking is he suddenness of the violence. It happens in an instant, changing the landscape of the story irrevocably and allowing no time for adjustment. Even the characters perpetrating it are often stunned by what they find before them, a far more plausible reaction than the careless ease that accompanies most movie violence. It is an inevitable part of the story in The Departed, but not treated as mere turning points, transitions to new acts through the pulling of a trigger. It has a deeper impact, an impact that is often shattering.

There was plenty of discussion through the first half of the decade about the Best Director Oscar that Martin Scorsese had yet to win, and the aggressive efforts on his behalf to secure him the coveted prize. There were some that saw the rough-hewn epic sweep of Gangs of New York and the classic Hollywood storytelling of the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator as blatant Oscar grabs, attempts to curry Academy voter favor by making the sort of films that traditionally accumulated honors instead of the fierce fare that had made his reputation. Of course, he didn’t win for those films. He won for this one, on the surface of it the least Oscar-friendly movie he’d made in years. I mean no disparagement of the other films, both excellent, when I note that it seems especially fitting. When Martin Scorsese got the Oscar recognition that was long overdue, it was for a film that was a direct descendant of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, not just because its characterized by unflinching toughness, but also because of its unwavering excellence.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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