Monday, January 15, 2007

Dearly Departed

I'm a Martin Scorsese fan. I haven't liked everything he's ever done, but even the ones I don't like are at least interesting. Most of his films are fantastic. So I was looking forward to seeing The Departed and now that I have, I'm surprised that I'm left with a supreme sense of, "Feh."

It begs for a comparison to its roots, the Chinese film Infernal Affairs. In some minor ways it improves on the original, but when all is said and done, Infernal Affairs wipes the floor with The Departed.

Why? First, I felt completely unstuck in time with The Departed. I think the film covers about a year's worth of time, but I'm not sure. Months seem to pass but no we're back in time no we're not we're a year down the road no we're only a day and look that conversation isn't over until next month the two are just stuck in that apartment chattering guns guns guns blood what month is it?

You get the idea? Some films do this with aplomb and a sense of discipline. Both were missing here. It felt clumsy, forced, erratic, and nonsensical. This is a shame, since Scorsese generally edits his films with the skill of a fine surgeon.

That's a mild complaint, though. Worst is the addition of Mark Wahlberg. I've nothing against Wahlberg per se, he's just given the thankless job of playing an annoying deus ex machina character.

The setup for both Infernal Affairs and The Departed is that an elite police unit has a mole within an organized crime gang. In turn, the gang has a mole within the elite police unit. The central plot of the film is that they are assigned to find each other; police mole must find gang mole and gang mole must find police mole. Within this framework is an exploration of personal identity and the loss of the same. Each is pretending to be something he's not. What impact does that begin to have on them? In Infernal Affairs, this covers some 10+ years. The stress of undercover work, taken to this extreme, is destroying the undercover cop. At the same time, the undercover gangster is finding he likes being a cop.

In Infernal Affairs, the true identity of the undercover cop is only known by one man. When that one man is killed, the cop's link to his real identity and life is gone. In The Departed, there are two officers who know his real identity, played by Martin Sheen and, tada, Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg's only reason for being in the film is to be a profane screaming nutcase of a supervisor...and for the final scene of the film. Aside from that, his character is completely superfluous and redundant to Sheen's character. Why his character exists becomes nauseatingly obvious.

The internal conflicts from Infernal Affairs remain in The Departed, but the film only covers about a year in time. Development of the stresses the protagonists are going through suffers accordingly. With that diminished, virtually eliminated, we're not left with much of a story that hasn't been done, and overdone, before.

The casting for the rest of the film is very good, if not great. Jack Nicholson does all right as the over-the-top gang leader. Some have compared this performance to his rendition of The Joker in Batman, but I don't think so. Here he's just pure sociopath, and not an eloquent one at that.

Matt Damon plays the gangster who has infiltrated the cops, and he displays none of the self-confidence necessary to pull it off. Ditto Leonardo DiCaprio, who is given the ultimately thankless job of being the police undercover operative just trying to stay alive working for the insane Nicholson. Both come off as whiny little kids.

A fantastic performance is given by Ray Winstone as Mr. French, Nicholson's main muscle. His dead-pan performance is excellent. He does exudes threat in the same way most people exude breath, even as he never seems to ever raise his voice. The brief moment where he reflects that his wife "got reliable" gave me a chill.

Vera Farmiga plays Madolyn, the psychiatrist love interest of both Damon and diCaprio, and she also does a great job. Both she and Winstone completely upstage the "name" talent in the film. Watching questions roil over her face is a thing of wonder, even more so when she is driven to become an iceberg at the end. I also want to note that she's beautiful, not in typical starlet fashion, but in the way that real-life women are.

Scorsese's directing is remarkably restrained, especially when compared to his other gangland films. Like Michael Mann, though, he has cinematic violence down to a tee. It is sudden and horrifying without being dwelled on. This film, like many of his past films, oozes violence from its pores. Characters are violent, language is violent, scenes are violent, and even the act of using a cell phone is violent. Nicely done.

By film's end, I was disappointed, probably in large part because I really liked Infernal Affairs, which despite its flaws is perfection compared to The Departed. At the end of Infernal Affairs, I remembered the two protagonists, their plights and their fates. At the end of The Departed, though, I could have cared less about them, instead wondering what created someone like Mr. French. I also wondered just what would Madolyn do now?

Well, at least that was the question until Wahlberg showed up....

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