The buzz surrounding "The Departed," the newest film from legendary director Martin Scorsese, is that it is "a return to form" or a revisit to familiar subject matter. The director of "GoodFellas" and "Casino" again revisits the mafia film. I hereby register my strong dissent from this line of thought.
"The Departed" is an American re-make of a wildly popular 2002 Hong Kong action film called "Infernal Affairs." The plot is paradoxical. It's a simple concept that makes for a very complex film laden with twists and turns: an undercover cop has infiltrated the local organized crime gang. Meanwhile, the mob has also infiltrated the police force. Soon both the cops and the gangsters learn there are traitors in their midst. And it just so happens that the ones responsible for sniffing out the moles are the undercover operatives themselves.
For the American film the setting has been changed from Hong Kong to Boston with Frank Costello, the organized crime boss (Jack Nicholson,) a part of the Irish mob. The undercover cop is played by Leonardo DiCaprio. In a rare role as a villain, Matt Damon plays the criminal who has infiltrated the police. Other actors include Alec Baldwin as the police chief, Ray Winstone as Costello's chief enforcer, and Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg as the officers in charge of the undercover unit.
Now that certainly sounds like a gangster/mafia film. But it's not, at least not in the sense of Scorsese's gangster films. Something important to understand: just having organized crime figures as the antagonists does not a mafia movie make. Films like "The Godfather" trilogy, "GoodFellas," and "Casino" are mafia films because that's what they're principally about - life in the mob. At its heart "The Departed" is not really about organized crime. Stylistically and thematically it's worlds apart from "GoodFellas" and "Casino." No, this is an entirely different animal than the bulk of Scorsese's films. His last film even in this neighborhood is 1991's "Cape Fear." This is a point that most critics probably will not make. Almost all of Scorsese's films would be best categorized as dramas. The films preceding "The Departed" (not counting documentaries) are "The Aviator," "Gangs of New York," "Bringing Out the Dead," "Kundun," "Casino," "The Age of Innocence," and then "Cape Fear." His last six films were all deep, meaningful, challenging dramatic pictures. The general purpose of a drama is to hit the viewer on an emotional level. Tell moving, challenging stories with real, compelling characters that the audience can interact with on a personal level. Dramas are the most highly praised and respected films because of all the genres they have the strongest potential to affect the audience.
And "The Departed" is not a drama. It's a genre picture - a thriller more specifically. "Cape Fear" also fits into that category. The thriller's purpose is to excite and engage more on both the intellectual and primal levels. Dramas aim for the heart. They make you identify with a character and experience to some degree what they're going through. Thrillers utilize well-constructed, unpredictable plots to play games with the viewer's mind. Coupled with the well-developed plot is the threat of violence or horror. Basically you're stuck wandering around a labyrinth hoping not to run into the minotaur.
Thus, "The Departed," for no fault of its own really, is not quite at the level of Scorsese's canonical, must-see films. It's not a "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," or "GoodFellas." The film's experience simply is not at that level. That's OK, though. For what it is - an exciting crime thriller - it's a marvelous success. The maze of a plot goes all over the place. Show me someone who can predict accurately how the film is going to go and I'll show you someone with precognition.
The usual trademark Scorsese-isms are certainly in play here: top-notch cinematography, the Oscar-winning editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, and the perfect use of music. Few directors can use rock and pop music as well as Scorsese. And, of course, he extracts some amazing performances from his actors. Both DiCaprio and Damon go places they've never gone before. And Nicholson - in his first film with Scorsese - returns to a villainy he has not displayed since "Batman" and "The Shining." You almost never see acting this good in thrillers.
The only major fault of the film is its length. Two and a half hours is far too long for a thriller. The only films that can be that long and longer are strong dramas. Genre films by their very nature have to be kept relatively short: no more than 90 minutes for comedies and horror films, two hours max for action and thrillers. Evidence of the need for a bit of a trim is the absence of the Scorsese pacing. Watch "Casino" or "Gangs of New York" and there is something continually happening. You never get the chance to look away. The pace of "The Departed" could really stand to be accelerated a bit.
There's already Oscar buzz surrounding the film with "best film of the year" thrown about. I'm not quite sure about that. As wonderful as it would be for Scorsese to finally get a best director Oscar or for one of his films to nab best picture, it would almost be a disappointment since so many of his better films have been snubbed. But I suppose we should take what we can get.