With the exception of a rare oddity or two, most especially Kundun (1997), a labor of love, Martin Scorsese’s track record as filmmaker has been dismal and mediocre at best. Extremely hard to fathom is the infatuation for a slew of his worst movies that some reviewers have (honestly?) professed: Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), GoodFellas (1990), The Age of Innocence (1993). While the Christ film gave some of them pause, and Kundun suggested Scorsese might be a Buddhist in disguise, the lion’s share of his lionization has come from Roman Catholics, at least male ones, who tend to regard Scorsese as “their man”; but, like John Ford before him, for all the richness of the Roman Catholic culture in which he is steeped, Scorsese may well be a nonbeliever—and of a particular sort: one who strains to accept what he finally cannot possibly believe. (Ford’s atheism, on the other hand, never caused Ford a moment’s grief!) Once again Scorsese’s legion of admirers may rally ’round their man’s cinema, for his latest effort, The Departed, comes saturated with Catholic guilt.
I myself am partial to what I consider the aesthetic of Roman Catholic guilt—the idea that a state of grace is inseparable from remorse. One doesn’t have to believe in God for such an idea to take hold. As if to underscore this point, The Departed refers to atheist John Ford’s The Informer (1935), whose mainspring is Irish Catholic guilt. Not only do undercurrents and atmospherics of The Departed owe their origin to Ford’s tremendous film set in Dublin during the Irish Rebellion, but a showing of The Informer can be glimpsed on television in the film. (It is the final scene that is shown, where the mother of the man whom he betrayed, and the police were thus able to kill, forgives “the informer” in church just before he dies.) At least Scorsese knows where he is coming from.
The Departed also refers to another movie. Scorsese’s is in fact a remake of a crackerjack (and much better) one: Alan Mak (Mak Siu Fai) and Andrew Lau’s (Lau Wai-Keung’s) 2002 Infernal Affairs (Mou gaan dou), the Hong Kong crime/cop thriller that has since spawned a II and a III. Numerous commentators have noted that in making The Departed Scorsese was returning a compliment, since his films have been canonized in Hong Kong, sparking the violent generic direction in which Hong Kong cinema has gone. John Woo’s (Wu Hsiang-fei’s) The Killer (Dip hyut shueng hung—literally, Bloodshed of Two Heroes, 1989) is dedicated to Scorsese.
The plot of the original is ingenious. It is about two young men who have worked undercover long enough as moles—ten years—to be of considerable use in their consolidated positions: a cop among gangsters; a gangster among cops. Each seeks to identify the other, which is to say, an alternate version of himself. Both, however, have wearied of their double lives and fear exposure; each is at the end of his tether as he comes to grasp the other’s actual identity. One will have to kill the other to be who he now wants to be. The script, by Felix Chong and Mak, launches what Village Voice critic Dennis Lim has called the film’s “infinite circularity.” This in turn, the film’s opening quotation suggests, is related to the Buddhist concept of “continuous hell”—the moral and psychological entrapment from which, for all their most concerted efforts, duplicitous individuals, especially traitors, cannot escape.
Written by William Monahan, a Boston native, The Departed shifts the action from Hong Kong to Boston. This also shifts the context from Buddhism to Irish Catholicism. Crossing these circles is another circle: Scorsese’s shift from Italian Catholic New York City culture, his home province, to Irish Catholic Boston culture. Betrayal as a theme exists in the philosophical ether of Mak and Lau’s Infernal Affairs; it is the ground and air for breathing right above-ground in The Departed. Whereas Scorsese’s films usually refer to Ford’s The Searchers (1956), this one refers to The Informer. People are set up to be betrayed or to become betrayers. The Departed is dense (and long!) with betrayal and guilt, whereas Infernal Affairs is trim, crisp and buoyant. Whereas the original is exceedingly hard to follow until it achieves supernal clarity in its central, cumulative psychological ambiguity hinging on the motif of the doppelgänger, Scorsese’s remake is blatant, unambiguous, with no possibility of mistaking the parallel moles for mirror-imaging halves of a single soul. Mak and Lau work with a scalpel; Scorsese, with a sledgehammer. Despite what many commentators have claimed, that Jack Nicholson’s hamfistedness as the mob boss contests Scorsese’s more subtle design, Nicholson’s performance is colorful and convincing, and Scorsese’s public remarks as to how he had to “rein in” Nicholson need to be taken with a grain of salt. All that said, Scorsese’s film is exuberant, engagingly superficial, and the most enjoyable thing he has done since The King of Comedy (1983)—for the most part, sheer pleasure. (Mark Wahlberg’s lame performance, however, is a real blemish.) It is the intricacy of all the “shifts” I have listed here, and their overlaps, that probably account for the general impression that Scorsese is working on a more precise level than his outrageous “supporting” star. In truth, they work together like two lopped-off fingers of the same hand.
Worth noting is another change from one version to the other. Monahan and Scorsese’s breaks the original’s hellish circularity, its logical and moral clockwork, with a new resolution of the plot that comes like the fantastic answer to the audience’s prayers. The scenarist and the director give the material, however unlikely, a happy ending. The possibility lingers that a merciful God exists, in Boston at least, and has interceded.
Further testifying favorably on behalf of the film is its social grasp of the implications of its plot. The “rat”—the informer, betrayer, mole, whatever—contributes to a corrupting culture. Scorsese closes his film on a rat, to whose old-fashioned pop cultural symbolism he restores some of its original bite of nastiness in contrast to contrary current tendencies, for instance, schools encouraging students to “out” drug using peers, and the federal government encouraging citizens to be on the lookout for neighbors who, acting suspiciously, might be terrorists. Scorsese’s film calls a rat a rat. (The rodent is tripping across the indoor window ledge in the apartment of a human rat.) If nothing else, The Departed shows that an undercover rat compromises both the organization he does not openly represent and, beyond that, the larger society. In so many ways the Bush 43 administration has made our nation a meaner place for kids and the rest of us, and I give credit to Scorsese for at least not interfering with our ability to infer this point in the presentation of his material. Overall, The Departed, for my money, is the best thing Scorsese has ever done, better even than Kundun, which cannot be navigated more than once. The Departed is repeatedly watchable.
What about the film’s punctuating violence? Almost all of it is gratuitous, of course, even without the original’s contrasting model; Infernal Affairs is able to convey the horrors of both mental and physical violence to a far greater degree precisely because it uses its violence judiciously, expressively. But in this regard Scorsese’s remake is at least superior to his Cape Fear (1991), a virtual and hysterical bloodbath.
Nicholson is a hoot,* and the film is well acted in general—but not as well acted as the original. Matt Damon’s performance as the gangland mole in the police force, while not without a subtle inflection or two, has only a fraction of the sense of entrapment that Andy Lau (a person other than director Andrew) brought to the comparable role in the original. Damon is good; Lau is much better. But even in Infernal Affairs the more complex, more tormented role is that of the mole the police have planted in the mob. Leonardo DiCaprio, the former teenaged TV sitcom performer, has been losing of late the “girlishness” for which Marlon Brando once chided him. (One might ask: He should talk? My response: Don’t talk ill of the departed!) DiCaprio is pulling himself together, giving here his first decent performance for Scorsese in three attempts. What bad luck for him, though, that Tony Leung Chiu Wai, one of the greatest film actors ever, played the comparable role in Mak and Lau’s film. DiCaprio has nothing like Leung’s capacity for soulful torment, Leung’s exquisite comprehension of the human heart. DiCaprio, moreover, is inferior also to co-star Damon, never really exploring his character, instead merely projecting his character’s anxiety and rattled state. By way of compensation, DiCaprio’s accent is okay, that is to say, by no means the laughable disaster that his accent in Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, 2006) is.
Approaching his thirty-second birthday, DiCaprio is tightening his craft, but only some depth of experience, and some deeper reflection on this experience, will turn him into the actor he wants to be and we want him to be.
* Monahan gives Nicholson’s mobster a truly great line: “We are all [on our way out]. Act accordingly.”
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