Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Departed

I love a film that opens with total confidence in what it's doing, dropping you into a world and not looking back. From the moment 'Gimme Shelter' starts up and Jack Nicholson starts his voiceover, this film had me. Much like the opening frames of Miami Vice announce that this is something special, you know from the brilliant first fifteen minutes that this is going to be a memorable film.

I love Infernal Affairs, it's one of my favorite films from recent years, it's a really tight, emotionally involving film. Normally I don't think it's worthwhile to remake films, but the premise to IA is just so good it can easily support two great films.

In approaching an adaptation of a work you love there's two approaches. One could focus on the changes and point out how it isn't as good as the original. Some adaptations, like the film of From Hell, are so glaringly bad you don't really have a choice but to do this. However, this film functions more like the film of Ghost World. It takes the same jumping off point as Infernal Affairs, but feels like a new story. I love the fact that there's so many alterations from the original, that film is out there, but with this, Scorsese has made a dynamic film that's full of life and originality.

One of the primary elements that separates the film from its predecessor is the performances. Nicholson is immensely entertaining, at any moment he could do something insane and hilarious. No one can do unhinged weirdness as well as him, and the high point for his character is undoubtedly the cut to Jack against a pure red background, move out to see him flanked by two women and dissolve to him throwing coke in the air. It's so ridiculous, but perfect for the world that Scorsese has created.

But Nicholson is by no means alone in bringing insane greatness to his performance. Mark Wahlberg can barely contain his anger with each line, spouting crazy insults to anyone within earshot. Alec Baldwin also gets some great lines, particularly his discussion of marriage at the driving range. For me, a lot of the entertainment in the film came from just marvelling at the performances. There's a style of acting that's designed to blend in, feel totally real, and that's great for certain projects, but this sort of showy scenery chewing makes this film very entertaining to watch, and seems to fit into the world. I can't imagine how times the word fuck is used in this film, but it may top even Goodfellas.

While these three are going off over the top, Damon and Dicaprio are able to emotionally ground the film. It's probably frustrating to see Nicholson or Wahlberg getting a lot of acclaim and laughs for what they're doing, but Damon and Dicaprio make it possible for them to go off into such flights of ridiculousness. They're both great in the film, and Scorsese does a great job of connecting the two characters, despite the fact that they only have a couple of scenes together.

Martin Sheen also does good work. The scene at his house was a great addition because it cemented the relationship between him and William, making his death all the more powerful. William's quick transition from sadness to tough abandon perfectly captured the difficulty of what he has to do. The film makes quite clear the sacrifices that both men go through and the loss of self identity.

Neither can fully commit to Madolyn, and I would consider that the justification for why she gets into a relationship with both of them. To some extent, their dual relationship felt a bit contrived, but within the context of the film it works, and I think having her character in a bigger role than the IA equivalent helped the film quite a bit.

This film had a wonderful energy, evidence that everything behind the scenes was working really well. The music was perfectly chosen, particularly in the 'Comfortably Numb' sequence, though I admit I really wanted a sequence set to the climax of 'Gimme Shelter.' The score had an effective industrial vibe, making it sound like it came out of the environment the characters were moving through.

The film's violence was pretty brutal, particularly in the final sequence. Never before have I seen so many headshots in a film, and it was effectively jarring. The final scene has been getting some pans from people who'd seen IA, but I think it worked well to complete the circle of violence. There's a brilliant ambiguity in the ending of IA, where Andy Lau claims the role of cop for himself, but I think this ending is equally valid and disturbing in its own way.

I'd have to watch IA again to figure out definitively, but right now I'd actually give The Departed the slight edge over its predecessor. I think Infernal Affairs had a tighter narrative that took better advantage of the parallels inherent in the premise, but The Departed's performances and film style made it a more enjoyable viewing experience.

Now, a film that's just entertaining isn't enough. Where The Departed goes further is in the fact that the entertainment isn't just that of a typical Hollywood movie, which is designed to be a smooth, easy viewing experience. This was entertaining in its construction and performances, in watching people who are the best at what they do enjoying doing their job.

Generally speaking, I've been drifting away from films that are tightly wound narratives, towards bigger, messier style pieces. Miami Vice is a great example of this, a film that doesn't always make plot sense, but has a strong emotional and stylistic throughline. Vice has a lot in common with The Departed, with both films exploring the difficulty of undercover work. I'd give Vice the slight edge both because I liked the visual work there better, and also because of the tragedy of the Gong Li/Colin Farrell relationship. But I think the films are wonderful companion pieces and are the two best American films of the year so far.

Looking at it, I think The Departed is actually my favorite Scorsese film. It's clearly not the most important or groundbreaking, but it also lacks the overt misogyny that is troubling in his other films. I find it difficult to relate to the really violent hyper masculine characters in his oeuvre, and that winds up knocking Raging Bull and Mean Streets. I respect those films, but I don't engage with them. Plus, I think the stylistic innovation of something like Goodfellas is numbed by the many films that have imitated it. So, I'm giving the edge to The Departed, which has a fantastic story, massive performances and is just a joy to watch.

And here's my ranking of all Scorsese's film that I've seen:

The Departed
Taxi Driver
Raging Bull
The Aviator
The Last Temptation of Christ
New York, New York
Mean Streets
Gangs of New York

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