03 February 2007
  the departed

despite what many film critics have been espousing lately, i think that 2006 was really a great year at the movies. especially following last year's almost complete dearth of anything watchable (save crash, of course) i really thought this year had a tremendous crop of great movies and few bad ones. but that being said, i don't think i have ever left a movie feeling that i needed to take a shower as many times as i have over the past few months. notes on a scandal, little children, children of men, hard candy, blood diamond, manderlay. . . all dark, disturbing, depressing flicks with themes such as the apocalypse, enslavement, genocide, sexual depravity and not one but TWO castrations.

the departed is another film that fits this bill. i think that the theme of this movie could best be described as the human manifestations of true evil. every man in this macho, muscley, testosterone-drunk scorsese film has his own demons, and throughout the course of the story, they clash with one another, unleashing their individual evils upon one another until, in the end, only one person is left standing. (the rest lie, undoubtedly, in hell).

the story is labyrinthine and, in the hands of a less talented director and cast, could easily have slid into the realm of indecipherability (like last year's syriana). but i didn't have this problem here. scorsese actually employs a neat degree of dramatic irony throughout, so that even when the viewer is confused about an event, she can take comfort in the fact that she is more apprised than the characters she is viewing. in the end, a certain degree of confusion on the part of the viewer is essential to the mystery of the film. and all the loose ends are tied up surprisingly nicely in the final scenes.

this is ostensibly a movie about cops and robbers. the twist is deciphering who belongs to which group. in the end, the division between the gangsters trolling the streets of boston and the police trying to infiltrate them is so muddled that it becomes almost arbitrary. jack nicholson is the head of the irish mafia in boston. police detectives mark wahlberg and martin sheen recruit newbie cop leo dicaprio to join nicholson's gang and spy on him. however, things become complicated for leo and the police force, when they realize that nicholson has a spy of his own in the department, matt damon, who is leaking info to him. the result is a simultaneous struggle on both the mafia's and the cops' sides to identify their personal "rat" before the other.

even though i don't particularly enjoy mob movies, i did enjoy the departed. maybe more than in any movie i have seen this year, i watched this on the edge of my seat, nervously involved in the action. scorsese shows here that he is worthy of his arguable title of the greatest u.s.-american director. he crafts a layered, complicated, thought provoking movie that in the hands of someone else could have been a simple shoot-em-up. all of the actors give such incredible performances here that it is really disquieting the cast managed to wrangle only a single acting nod from the academy for mark wahlberg for best supporting. as a sometimes reluctant jack nicholson-phile myself, i was particularly struck by his charmingly evil portrayal of mob boss frank costello (think gangs of new york's butcher meets the grinch). i really think if just one cast member was to be nominated it should have been him.

however, even though i found this movie enertaining, i had a large problem with several underlying messages it communicated, which make it difficult to rank the departed along my more favorite scorsese flicks like gangs and casino.

this is a movie about manly men, men who hold their liquor, pick up women without trying, break bones without wincing, men who live for guns, and drugs and sex and power. so, in the end, despite all of the evil things that every single character in this movie does, i couldn't help but think that, in some ways, these characters were still being put on the screen as an ideal type. of course, politically and morally these are bad men. but they are still paradigms of masculinity. this is what little boys should strive to become.

the problem for me is the voluminous amount of casual misogyny, racism and heterosexism that proliferate throughout the departed in every scene, in every context, from every character. there are more c***s, f*****s and n*****s in this movie than in any other i have ever seen. of course, one could make the argument that these are characters in a text and scorsese created them according to a type, not necessarily an ideal one. however, this is a movie that shows one what it means to be truly manly. and this identity seems to entail a hatred or at least disrespect of women, gays and people of color. the message that this movie communicates is at best mixed and at worst hateful.

in order for scorsese to have made this a truly brilliant movie, i would have liked for him to have provided some foil against this archetype of bigoted machismo to show that the language and attitudes of the men in this movie are wrong and can be avoided. what scorsese seems to show in his directing here is that these words and feelings are inevitable in such a hyper-masculine setting. i don't think he understands or even contemplates the true power of his movie to propagate the sorts of attitudes that his characters espouse. so even though he is just presenting a type, not necessarily an ideal one, he is indeliberately contributing to the atmosphere of hatred he is depicting. his fault here was to not provide any sort of critique internal to the story of this atmosphere.
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