Martin Scorsese has taken a lot of guff (from me, in my mind, every time I’ve sat through any of his last 10 or so films in theaters) for having fallen off the pedestal that American film critics spent millions of words erecting for him during what were undeniably his glory years, between Mean Streets and Casino (’73-’95). The question of whether he is (as critic David Thomson has derisively put it) Our Artist – the great American filmmaker of the second half of the 20th century, an accolade he’s been given countless times at this point – is more fun to ask than a serious critical question at this point in his career. He made a dozen great movies from the mid-‘70s to the mid-‘90s, enough for even the hardest-hearted critic to let him get away with middling puffery for as long as the third act of his career lasts (which is probably just another way of saying until his health gives out). Casino may not have been the best of his great movies, but for a while it did seem like his last great work, a throbbing, kinetic and unbelievably raw film that hasn’t yet gotten credit for its sphere of influence (Thomson, in a different Scorsese article, likens it to a cinematic symphony). It often seems, when looking at the well-made but relatively lackluster stuff he’s put out in the 18 years since Casino, that Scorsese shot his wad with it, said everything he could possibly say about corruption, the mafia, the relationship between violence and the development some of the key aspects of our culture in mid-20th century America. The theory that he petered out after Casino consistently holds water when weighed against the late Scorsese (read: Leonardo DiCaprio-era) films: Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island and (the first in a decade to not feature DiCaprio) Hugo.
It holds water until I find the energy within myself to re-watch and attempt to reevaluate those supposedly second-rate late-period movies. When I do that, I tend to find myself eating a little crow. Because the conclusion it becomes necessary to make is this: Scorsese hasn’t lost his edge in old age, he’s refined it to a point so thin and sharp that it comes in and out of focus like a shaky zoom.
Some of it remains out of focus, of course. Shutter Island is pretty much exactly what it looks like: an exceedingly stylish, high-budget horror movie, loopy and often formless. Gangs of New York has so much brilliance in roughly every third scene that you marvel more at how every first and second seem to be beyond Scorsese’s normally impeccably sure hand. But Hugo, which looks at first glance like something we’ve all decided to forget from Steven Spielberg’s middle years, is a frightening and intelligent children’s film that works on all of those levels. Hugo is actually a tremendous achievement. And so, I have to admit, is The Departed.
The Departed is ostensibly a return to Scorsese’s bread-and-butter, the gangster movie. Factor its gangland plot in with the prominent presence of Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg playing tough bastards in a Boston setting, and it becomes pretty damn hard to think Scorsese wasn’t trying to cash in on the rough-streets-of-Boston crime movie that Damon and Wahlberg helped popularize in the past 15 years. It’s rather easy to think that Scorsese felt he couldn’t die happy until he had stamped his brand of gangland opera onto Boston (it had been done well by Clint Eastwood a few years earlier, and before that with low-budget films like Monument Avenue and Southie in the 90s, but Boston hadn’t really enjoyed a good old fashioned romanticizing of its criminal life since the ‘70s, way back when Scorsese had been busy illuminating the rough streets of his own home city).
So it does lend itself to a cynical synopsis: “The Departed is just Goodfellas with a coat of Boston-Irish paint.” But Scorsese’s ace-in-the-hole is simple. The Departed isn’t really a gangster movie, the frequent appearance of Jack Nicholson as a gleefully Satanic Irish don notwithstanding. The movie should actually be shelved in an adjacent section, among the gangster movie’s evil twin, the cop film. It’s as tough a movie as Scorsese has made, but it’s about a brand of tough guy, the cop, that the director almost actively ignored for the first 30 years of his career
Damon and DiCaprio play the yin and yang of Scorsese’s image of the Boston underworld. The former, Irishly dubbed Colin Sullivan, is a gangster pretending to be a cop, planted in the Boston PD by Nicholson’s aforementioned don, a tacky-dressing, mass-murdering mick named Frank Costello. The latter, Bill Costigan, is Sullivan-through-the-looking-glass: a cop pretending to be a gangster, planted inside Costello’s gang by the same police unit that Sullivan has been sent to infiltrate. It’s a tidy setup, not as confusing as one would think, especially given the virtuoso extended pre-credit sequence in which Scorsese sets up the entirety of the cop-gangster dichotomy at the plot’s core, weaving a bit of the history of modern Boston around the edges for color.
We’ve seen the cop under deep cover in the mafia before; the conceit is probably as old as gangster movies themselves. Perhaps because of this, DiCaprio has the easier role, though he by no means attempts to rest on the recognizable trope of his character. Instead, in what has become his trademark, DiCaprio acts his brains out trying to keep up with Nicholson and Damon (not to mention the rest of the more naturally gifted cast, including Martin Sheen and Ray Winstone). Damon, playing strongly against type as a toothy-smiled faux good guy who doesn’t have the law on his side the way his opponent (Costigan) does, has the trickiest role in the movie. Costello made Sullivan into a crook before he was old enough to protest, and financed his rise through the Boston PD. Positioned as the bad guy, Sullivan is actually the most tragic role in the movie. Damon (guided, no doubt, by the sure hand of Scorsese) makes the masterstroke of playing Sullivan as a bad actor, constantly a touch too jovial and eager to please, always betraying a desperation to keep his deceit secret. The trickiness of Damon’s line deliveries alone – his task is to convey three things at once: 1) to the cops he’s infiltrated: an honor-bound allegiance to duty; 2) to the gangsters he reports to: a talent for being two-faced while maintaining a true allegiance to them; and 3) to the audience: a hollow moral core effected only by the gnawing sense that his lies don’t stop with just the people around him – makes The Departed one of the most impressive things he’s ever done. Shame Scorsese insists on going back to DiCaprio over and again, a smaller talent with more box office clout.
It’s not a shame that Scorsese is taking his time these days in coming back to the crime film. We like him best when he’s constructing morally conflicted men who favor guns and lead pipes over words (though, cleverly, the real meaning behind a well-spun lie is one of the movie’s most salient themes). But he’s done it so often in his career that at times his crime movies start to blend together. The Departed is superficially a return to what we love Scorsese for that is actually the most serious work he’s made in over a decade.
Oh, and yes it’s a remake of a movie made four years previous, a Hong Kong procedural called Infernal Affairs, which is a deft, shiny, fast-moving thriller that, unless you allow for inference, asks almost none of the moral questions that Scorsese makes overt in The Departed. Scorsese and his screenwriter, William Monahan, lifted large chunks of Infernal Affairs wholesale, including most of its more clever conceits, but they added two very important things to their version: time and place. The Departed is a movie about modern crime and modern cops, about (among other things) the way that technology, in this case cell phones and surveillance equipment, make crime and policing more difficult in the same way. Infernal Affairs is far more efficient at conveying the same premise (cop/gangster vs. gangster/cop) but it runs mostly on its own energy, hardly every stopping to take in even the lowly likes of atmosphere, much less social context, two things Scorsese knows enough to include in the very fiber of the best movies he makes.