Rats! A Problem of Redundancy

The Departed

Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Sheen in 'The Departed'I was complaining to film critic (and frequent Drunken Commentary Track collaborator) Mike Schulz about the final half-hour of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, and he suggested I was looking at it all wrong. If you see the movie as a serious cop-and-gangster thriller, it does fall apart, with its escalating body count and that blunt-instrument final shot, juxtaposing unattainable dreams with vermin.

But if you see it as a comedy ... .

It’s a tempting reading, because the movie holds together slightly better. An absurdist futility pervades the film, and the bleakness is so complete that it approaches being funny. (But without, you know, actually being funny.) The last act of The Departed reminded me of Adaptation; in both, the writer (here William Monahan) gave up and caved in to his basest inclination. In Adaptation, it was done with a wink.

In Scorsese’s movie, though, the tone is fatalistic instead of comic. The aggressive editing seems designed to keep viewers on-edge, and the plotting and forward energy are urgent and tense.

Cops have infiltrated the Boston mafia, and the mob has infiltrated the state police, and the FBI seems compromised, too. Each organization lives for the chase — coming this close to catching the bad guys, and coming this close to getting caught. So although the personal stakes are high — any individual could be offed at any moment — there’s organizational comfort in the routine, and a strong interest in preserving that routine. And the easiest way to maintain this precarious balance is through the extensive use of rats; if each stakeholder knows what the other is up to, a stalemate that perpetuates the game is nearly inevitable.

But as serious as the movie is, you can’t take it seriously. By the time the final body falls, with the backdrop of the golden Massachusetts-state-capitol dome juxtaposed with a rat on the balcony, it all seems kinda silly and dumb. Positioned as the last image of the movie, the symbols are sledgehammers, and they’re painful.

Scorsese explained the rationale for the final shot in an interview:

“It really isn’t meant to be literal, but it’s a comment on the subject matter. ... It ... represents ... a sense of paranoia and betrayal and one person never knowing who the other person is or what the other person is doing, or if you can believe anybody.”

The problem with the final shot isn’t his interpretation but the underlining and highlighting and putting exclamation points next to themes and ideas that were already abundantly clear.

Scorsese himself has warned against this very sort of obviousness. In a 1997 interview available in Laurent Tirard’s collection Moviemakers’ Master Class: Private Lessons from the World’s Foremost Directors, Scorsese said:

“There are many different kinds of mistakes that I think a director must try to avoid at all costs. The first that comes to mind is redundancy — making the point of a film over and over again, either emotionally or intellectually. ... Whether it’s a political message or just the underlying theme of the film, I sometimes see films in which, at the end, a character will, either virtually or literally, make a speech or have a line of dialogue where he will explain that [sic] the film title means or even explain what the film was about. And that, I feel, is the worst thing you can do. I’m not sure I’ve avoided that myself. But I’ve certainly tried.”

There’s no explanatory speech at the end of The Departed, but the final image serves the same purpose. That type of brute authorial force is rarely a good thing, yet it can be forgiven when what comes before has approached the profound, the incisive, or the important. But for all its fierce content, The Departed is thematically safe and emotionally vacant, a movie without ambition beyond entertainment. While there’s no shame in that, the movie has been championed as Scorsese’s return to form after the Oscar-baiting The Age of Innocence, Kundun, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator.

I don’t begrudge the legendary director the de facto lifetime-achievement Oscar he won this week, because the movie’s inflated status is not his doing. By all accounts he considers The Departed a retread himself — not just of the Asian film Infernal Affairs but of his own oeuvre:

“As I found myself doing scenes, I said to myself, ‘I’ve done this picture before.’ Sometimes it was Gangs of New York, sometimes Raging Bull. It was like a disease or something. I couldn’t get it out of my system. It had these themes that kept on drawing me back into my own movies and so I felt comfortable.”

The exploration of well-mapped terrain can still be rewarding, but The Departed is narratively deficient.

The editing (for which Thelma Schoonmaker won an Oscar) at times feels random. Jump cuts leap out as incongruous and superfluous, but the scheme generally doesn’t serve the story well — too capricious.

David Bordwell has noted that Scorsese’s movies are increasingly cut-happy:

The Departed has calmed Scorsese’s urge to track a bit, but that’s balanced by its over 3,200 cuts. The result is an average shot length (ASL) of about 2.7 seconds. Not unusual for an action picture nowadays, but consider where Scorsese started by conning these ASLs: Mean Streets, 7.7 seconds; Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 8.0 seconds; Taxi Driver, 7.3 seconds; King of Comedy, 7.7 seconds; Gangs of New York, 6.7 seconds; The Aviator, 3.6 seconds.”

There’s no rule dictating shot length, of course, and a kinetic cutting style can aid a thriller’s pace. But the surfeit of edits in The Departed is distracting, and serves to pull the audience out of the movie.

As harsh as I’m being on The Departed, it has many pleasures. For two hours, it crackles with tension, although it would be hard for it not to with the premise. And it’s smart about the way organizations lose themselves, as their core missions are eroded by the need to continuously ensure their permanence.

Scorsese has cited one particular theme that resonated with him during the film’s production:

“As we were making it I’m realizing that we’re in a moral Ground Zero in a way. Almost none of the characters really — maybe Billy [played by Leonardo DiCaprio], maybe the doctor [Vera Farmiga]; she feels a certain way about morality, but she makes mistakes, she learns about herself, she’s duplicitous too, in a way, it’s a world where morality no longer exists.”

The corruption in these institutions is so complete that “corruption” no longer has any meaning. Every major character is a liar, a poseur, a performer, duplicitous; the words aren’t really important, because the negative connotations have fallen away. Being a rat isn’t a moral failing, and smoking out the rats is a practical necessity rather than a moral obligation.

Matt Damon and DiCaprio are the ostensible leads in The Departed by virtue of the risk of their positions. Damon’s character works for Jack Nicholson’s mobster while rising to a key position in the Massachusetts State Police, and DiCaprio plays a young cop undercover in Nicholson’s crew. Damon seems a touch too composed in his role, but DiCaprio connects with the audience with the anxiety that gushes from him when he’s briefly freed from his need to play the mob goon.

More compelling are Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg. Jack has been faulted for a typically over-the-top turn, while Wahlberg nabbed an Oscar nomination for his verbally aggressive cop, but they’re playing variations on the same character: blowhards powerful and comfortable enough that their “performances” don’t need to be credible or subtle. Unlike the characters of Damon and DiCaprio, who need to blend in to their surroundings, these two hams bluster and bullshit and belittle to ensure compliance with their wishes.

But when the story plays out to it logical conclusion — when Damon and DiCaprio understand each other’s duality — Scorsese and Monahan can’t find a satisfying resolution. (I haven’t yet seen Infernal Affairs, so I don’t know if this is an issue of faithfulness or of something else.)

A larger problem is that the audience really has no stake in any of the male characters. They’re all sociopaths, and DiCaprio’s undercover cop is the only one who’s remotely conflicted. (And he’s not morally conflicted; he makes clear that the stress of his double existence is consuming him.)

So in a milieu “where morality no longer exists,” what exactly is the audience’s interest? Why not kill ’em all? Because this isn’t a comedy, and because it’s too tidy, and because it nullifies all that came before: Whatever the characters do or choose, all paths eventually lead to an early visit to the morgue for virtually everyone involved.

Scorsese’s fans — those happy that he finally won a best director Oscar — acknowledge that The Departed isn’t his best work. That’s being charitable. The Academy Awards that the movie won would be easier to embrace if it were a work of minor greatness from the director. But The Departed will finally settle among Scorsese’s lesser films: safe, familiar, and — by the man’s own standards — a piece of inferior storytelling.

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