Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Does "The Departed" Show Martin Scorcese's Heart of Darkness?

In 1990, director Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas ” examined gangster life from the inside. The film didn’t shy away from the downward spiral of its characters, as they were slowly consumed by their own culture of corruption. As in several of Scorcese’s well-known works, the characters here reap what they sow – they’re violent men who meet violent ends. Religion, in the form of Catholic rituals and iconography, is present but rarely redemptive.
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To many critics, the film’s violence and stylish camerawork were masterful in technique and execution, and represented an artistic high point for the filmmaker. “Goodfellas” soon took its place alongside “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” among the director’s most acclaimed works.

Since “Goodfellas,” Scorcese has directed several films, including a remake of “Cape Fear”; a romantic period piece ( “The Age of Innocence”); another mob tale (“Casino ”); a story about the dalai lama (“Kundun”); and a couple of shots at earning an elusive Best Director Oscar (“Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator”). Each film had its rewards, but each was notably flawed in some way – too long, too impersonal, or too lacking in passion.

With “The Departed,” the passion returns in spades, but the film is, like so many other Scorcese-directed works, overly long, terribly profane, brutally violent and extremely dark. The cinematic technique, especially during the film’s first hour, is dazzling – a fluid mix of camera movement, Classic Rock, and Mob machinations that sets a grim and gritty tone for what’s to come. But the energy soon lags, and a sea of despair drowns most of the characters, while the law of diminishing returns takes hold of the film. It becomes one more look at the criminal mind, with big-name actors depicting desperation, savagery and duplicity.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Billy Costigan, a cop from a troubled family who goes undercover to infiltrate the circle of Boston crime lord Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costigan works closely with superiors Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Queenan (Martin Sheen) who protect his identity, but their efforts to arrest long-time crime boss Costello are stymied by Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a police mole who keeps Costello one step ahead of law enforcement. The parallels between Costigan and Sullivan carry over to their love lives, with both men falling for the same woman (Vera Farmiga). As the noose tightens around Costello, the two cops struggle to keep up their false fronts, while each seeks to expose the other.

“The Departed” is a remake of “Infernal Affairs,” a Hong Kong film that clocks in at 1 hour and 41 minutes, but Scorcese, given the chance to work with Nicholson and his favorite actor of late, DiCaprio, can’t contain himself. He takes the efficient Hong Kong story and pads it significantly, resulting in a bloated, drawn-out story that grows punishing as the violence mounts. At 2 hours and 30 minutes, “The Departed” manages to be more confusing than the much shorter film on which it’s based. Even so, the morbid outcome still surprises – it provoked gasps among the audience watching an advance screening – but getting to that point is arduous.

For this viewer, the ending couldn’t have come sooner. “The Departed” is ultra-violent, and despite memorable performances from the iconic Nicholson and the scene-stealing Alec Baldwin, the end result is less than thrilling.

Scorcese has gone to this well too many times. That well is not yet empty, but “The Departed” is far from refreshing. It is, rather, soul-deadening. Better for Scorcese to make different films, even if flawed, than to rehash the bloodletting and tough talk he’s already proven he can do so well.

Thanks to Christian Hamaker

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