Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Another Year The Best Picture Probably Wasn't: The Departed.

The Good: Decent acting, Moments where characters are interesting, DVD extras
The Bad: Pacing, Plot becomes tired, Does not seem all that fresh
The Basics: The Departed, another weak Best Picture win, is filled with gore, generic archetypal characters and performances that simply use the innate talent of the performers.

For years now, I've been taking cracks at the Emmy's, Oscars and Golden Globes for their obsessive need to present their awards annually. Indeed, my best argument comes in the form of the Best Picture awards given out by those shows that deal with films. The luck some films have is in being nominated in a year of mediocre films. The result is a collection of remarkably mixed "Best Picture" wins. Sure, The Departed might be the best film to hit theaters in 2006, but it's not a particularly great film, not one likely to endure as a true American classic. Yes, I'm arguing that the Academy ought to have held off a year until there was a Best Picture that was also a Great Picture, because for as good as The Departed is, it's no Casablanca.

Opening with lines that are intended to shock the viewer - Jack Nicholson's character opens the film with a voice over that includes racist epitaphs - The Departed relies more on setting than actual character to establish the world it embodies and while it is entertaining, it's not the masterpiece of all films that several people seem to want it to be.

Frank Costello is an Irish gangster in Boston who has the good fortune of having a long view and has never been effectively caught by the corrupt police in Massachusetts. The State and the Feds have a long view as well and they have worked hard to train an officer, Billy Costigan, to infiltrate the mob. He had pretty sterling connections considering his father was corrupt, so he is compelled by two chief detectives to take on additional training (like jail time) to establish an image that will effectively allow him to infiltrate Frank's gang to get the evidence needed to put Costello away for good.

The problem the Feds and the Massachusetts State troopers have is that Costello had essentially the same plan, raising Colin Sullivan to be a brilliant cop who is assigned to Costello's case. It does not take long before Costigan realizes there is a mole within the agency and Sullivan is forced to work extra hard to cover his tracks. In the process, Costigan and Sullivan share the same woman, Costello becomes sloppy and a killing spree breaks out that puts a real timetable on every person's agenda.

The Departed is a police drama that is deeply involved with undercover characters and the only character aspect that is genuinely interesting from the beginning to the end of the film is the identity-in-trust of Costigan. In order to have Costigan become an effective mole of Costello's organization, his identity must be erased and completely restructured. Costigan, Captain Queenan and undercover Sergeant Dignam are the only three people who know the truth or have access to it. So on a character level, the viewer knows that Costigan is safe and can get out once his assignment is over, so long as either Queenan or Dignam is alive and in a position to help him.

Thus, The Departed only becomes truly interesting when those three characters are placed in real jeopardy. Fortunately, the script is just smart enough to recall this and keep Sullivan smart enough to rearrange the proverbial pieces on the board to keep those three essential characters off balance with is machinations. When Queenan, for example, is menaced, the viewer cares because we understand the real threat is to the strung-out Costigan.

That said, most of the characters are either unlikable (like Costello) or more archetypes than actualized characters. The female characters - notably police psychologist Madolyn Madden - are generally flat and serve to advance the fairly male-dominated plot line. Madden is as corrupt and easy to manipulate as all of the men and the suggestion in her character that because she is open to lying to her boyfriend (Sullivan) that she wants to be lied to is particularly disturbing. Indeed, the problem with the Sullivan/Madden relationship is that it is built on lies that come far too easily for both characters and leave the viewer wondering what truly motivates the pair to be together other than simple physical lust. At the end of the day, though, the role is inconsequential; Madden is mostly used as a tool to expose more plot points and continue to paint Sullivan and Costigan. In other words, she never pops as a character who is distinct in her own right and does not seem to have a life or identity outside serving the basic plot of the main story.

And for as edgy as the film is supposed to be, so much of it feels like it has been done before. The Departed hinges on a series of twists and turns and by the time the viewer gets to a certain point in the film, the twists become predictable and we accept that the good guys might not win the day. The bloodbath that ensues over the turf war between the law and the mob becomes an almost predictable series of strikes and counterstrikes. There comes a point in the film that the bodies start piling up and I began to call just who would be killed off next. I got them all right. It's pretty sad when a supposed thriller is not quite engaging enough to keep us within the film long enough to finish its story. But I found myself bored with the chase and the sequence of reversals which allowed me to start commenting on the work as I watched it. That's never a good thing.

And perhaps the most shocking element of characterization - the use of racist terms and the boatload of swearing - has been done before. The Departed thinks it's new to characterize bad people by illustrating their unacceptable social behavior with their language. Well, Costello is pretty bad from the outset without throwing around "nigger" and every other word in the book. And by the end of the film, who is good and who is less than based on the number of shots fired is pretty clear.

The Departed is also fairly graphic with the violence and gore. Those who complain about such things as the alien blowing out the head of a convict with its inner jaw in Alien 3 will be hard pressed to say that the gore in this film is not more significant. After all, here we see multiple people shot - including right in the face with big gory splatters behind them -, thrown off buildings, and dying in other painful ways. And we see it happen on screen through the magic of special effects and make-up and the difference between it being done by alien life forms and humans should be more horrific in this context. Yet, most of the reviewers praised The Departed and found the gore in films like Alien 3 to be over-the-top. I suppose times change. Or Martin Scorsese gets a freebie for being Martin Scorsese. I'm becoming convinced that certain directors are able to get away with more based on the virtue of being famous and well-respected. In The Departed, Scorsese pushes the limits of violence and gore with a story that is violent at its core, but that could have been classier with its presentation of death.

In other words, Scorsese illustrates death with little poetry and quite a bit more realism than most directors would choose to. But even Scorsese does not go the whole distance. Like so many, he seems terrified of showing the true impact of firearm deaths. It's one thing to blow away a character on screen and illustrate the back of their head splattering against the wall; it's entirely another to make the front of that same face unrecognizable with that blast or illustrate what happens to the body when it hits the ground (yea collapsing skull!). My point here is that the arguments for realism fall short with the follow-through. Scorsese, like so many directors, tries to make killing artistic and entertaining and while he ratchets up the gore as a result, it cannot be said it's purely for realism's sake. Of course, in order to show a truly realistic wasting of a human with a shot to the face, the MPAA would probably only pass the film with an "R" with one such incident.

That said, the place where the film deserved to excel was in the casting. I love great actors, but in the case of The Departed, the casting makes the movie more than the acting does. Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg are not playing characters that are a real stretch for them. Indeed, some of the best actors in the film are playing well within a niche we have seen them in before. One of my favorites, Martin Sheen, who plays Captain Queenan, is playing the role essentially identically to his bit role in Bobby. In other words, we've seen the performance before and with most of the other principle characters, it's a similar thing.

The big exception is Leonardo DiCaprio as Costigan. DiCaprio caught my eye last year in Blood Diamond and he was great in that role. It was different for him and he used the opportunity to stretch as an actor. In that part, DiCaprio plays more of a rogue and the challenge for him in The Departed is to play a straight-laced man as a rogue and his performance lives up. He is easily the shining star of The Departed and he was robbed for an acting award for either this or Blood Diamond that year. As unlikely as it might be, DiCaprio becomes completely convincing as a man on the right side of the law working on the wrong side of it. He is able to embody a ruthless quality through much of the film, but play the scenes where that is wearing on his character with an essential humanity that rings true. It is possibly his best performance to date.

And it is that that finally pushed the film up to a territory where I felt I could recommend it. The Departed is a long film that feels long (it's 151 minutes) and it has more than the requisite twists and turns to keep the average film viewer entertained. But for those looking for something truly groundbreaking or sophisticated, this didn't add up. In other words, it's fine entertainment, but it's not truly more than that. I suppose I want my Best Pictures to be more than just entertaining.

The DVD has a commentary track and a bonus disc filled with featurettes, none of which excited me enough to more enthusiastically recommend the film.

As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is available by clicking here! (Please do!)

For other works featuring police as primary characters, please check out my reviews of:
Did You Hear About The Morgans?
Blade: Trinity
L.A. Confidential


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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