Monday, October 22, 2012

Cinema 2006: Best Picture is haunting indictment of society

Filmmaker Matin Scorsese won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2006 with "The Departed," the film that also earned an Oscar for Best Picture.

“The Departed” is set in South Boston instead of Manhattan, and the bad guys are big time, but other than that the streets are just as mean as in Scorsese's breakout film from 1973. Apparently there is not much room for human progress within the criminal element.

In "The Departed" we are shown a venal world populated by unimaginative sociopaths, including crime boss Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson. Although Jack is fun to watch, the Hollywood legend here is content to riff off his previous work, including as Batman's nemesis, as an urbane werewolf, and even as a “horny little devil.” Unfortunately, such reprises lack the genuineness that moved us the first time around.

While Jack is less than stellar, and Mark Wahlberg was nominated for an Oscar for his role here, it is Leonardo DiCaprio who positively explodes off the screen and takes the movie by storm, whether he’s streetfighting, seething, kung-fuing his own conscience, or tongue-lashing a government psychiatrist. By comparison, Matt Damon, who plays the golden boy of the Massachusetts State Police, comes across as wan and stuck in second gear.

DiCaprio’s character, Costigan, has also made it into the state police, becoming a righteous cop despite a hood's pedigree. Costigan is given a death sentence of a detail: an elaborate and psychologically pummeling deep cover.

Damon’s Sullivan, on the other hand, is a dirty detective sergeant despite all appearances, working for the very crime boss whose inner circle Costigan is assigned to infiltrate. The psychology of these two characters – negative images of each other – keeps the film balanced in mid-air even after the narrative has stalled.

Scorsese paints a violent society where priests are bon vivant sex offenders, nuns are whores, and adult life boils down to the twin pursuits of money and sex, although describing it in those terms is too polite for these selfish scumbags.

Despite dialog sprinkled with esoteric quotes from the likes of James Joyce and Nathaniel Hawthorne – more of a screenwriter's conceit than an insight into the characters – these bad guys are brutes with less brains than a boiled potato.

While some viewers may look superficially on these violent men as heroes and even envy their gangster lifestyle, the mean streets here are all dead ends. Scorsese is showing us an increasingly marginalized demographic that is being dumped on by the dead hand of history. These tough guys lack the true machismo needed to improve their lot.

Nor should viewers be swayed by Costello's materialist malarkey, that when you’re staring down the barrel of a gun it doesn’t matter whether you’re a cop or a criminal.

"The Departed" is steeped in a cynical inexorability that calls into question our ability as a nation to recreate ourselves to meet new challenges. Is America over the hill? Are we past rejuvenating a once great society?

When the final showdown can no longer be postponed, "The Departed" resolves itself like a spaghetti western, with Scorsese owing viewers an apology for not having ordered enough coffins.

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