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2017

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2018-09-29

The Departed [2006] by Martin Scorsese


I don't understand how there can be near-unanimous acclaim for this film. Is it because Martin Scorsese and his renowned cast can do no wrong? Who can question the work of three-time Academy Award winning actor and legend Jack Nicholson? He is one of the best actors of his generation and of course when his fellow actors were promoting the film they all spoken about how much of a privilege it was to work with him. Is it difficult to notice that he can't actually act anymore; that he merely caricatures himself? Maybe he destroyed himself with playing The Joker in Batman (1989) for which he was given a percentage of the profits and made about $60 million dollars for one of the worst performances from a great actor in the history of cinema. His performance in The Departed was barely more restrained than The Joker. His performance is like a cartoon and utterly unconvincing as a real human being, despite being surrounded by grounded, effective performances. This makes sense discovering that he was given free-reign on set to improvise and ham it up, his director trusting that he is still a great artist, or simply too afraid to question him. Despite Scorsese's definite competence, Nicholson is unrestrained and detrimental.

The rest of the cast do an impressive job of being tough guys and talking dirty and were clearly working hard and taking the film seriously. It cannot have been easy to get into the minds of such cardboard charaters.

In some ways this film is classic Scorsese, portraying the intricate dealings of American organised crime. He seems to have moved on to Irish crime syndicates, perhaps responding to criticism that he was reinforcing stereotypes about Italian-Americans being criminals. In some ways it is a hollow simulacrum of his greatest films. The film is competently directed. Apart from the stain of Jack Nicholson, its surface is immaculate. But this is a film with no soul. It is utterly lifeless, devoid of heart, or spirituality, of morality or any thematic resonance that speaks to the experience of being human. To me, this soullessness is fundamental.

Is this supposed to be pure entertainment, with no artistic intentions? I do not find it entertaining to watch hollow violent vulgar men destroy each other and themselves within the context of a convoluted and banal narrative with zero character development. For this film to be entertaining it would require emotional engagement with the characters and tension and suspense in the narrative. But the only character who I could even begin to engage with was Leonardo DiCaprio's character, who did display an emotionally complex response to the disgusting violence and deceit occurring around him, but even within the 2.5 hour duration his character did not have time to develop or find any resolution. There was not even a palpable sense of injustice in the film about how his character was being exploited by both the mob and the cops, only incident and plot convolutions. 

Despite Matt Damon's balanced efforts his character does not manage to be anything other than a monster. The only female character in the film, played by Vera Farmiga, is anything but a woman. She seems to have a heart, though zero intelligence, despite being a doctor of psychology, and there is no reason why she could be attracted to Matt Damon's character except that she loves fucking, which would be interesting, but is of course undeveloped. Otherwise it is inconceivable that she is not aware that he is a psychopath with no redeeming qualities or human emotion. The only explanation is that she is not a woman at all, but a man's idea of a woman, less even than Nicholson's cartoon character, she is a cardboard cut-out, in the film only to add another needless convolution to the plot.

Of course it is possible that I am not the target audience for the film. I like well-made, serious, intense and involving dramas, but I am not a heterosexual male. This film is overflowing with machismo to the extent that I can't imagine it appealing to anyone who is not a heterosexual male also full of machismo. The whole cast is male and super-straight, even the one female character is basically a man, in that she is the creation of men who know nothing of women. The characters are all extremely vulgar and violent and act as if they have no feelings. The film is actually appallingly badly written. That this film won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay is only evidence of how far removed from reality certain people are. Even Scorsese doesn't seem aware that he's working with a screenplay that is hollow, crude and juvenile. The characters speak to each other like insecure teenage boys, though the film offers no perspective or insight into their damaged masculinity. There is no depth, no substance, no thematic interest, no narrative shape or character development. It is simply a convoluted plot with all the characters trying to figure out what is going on before everyone else figures it out. However, the audience already knows everything, so there is nothing to learn, so there is no suspense or tension, and therefore no interest or excitement, and therefore no entertainment, and therefore no reason for the film to exist.

Surely Scorsese and his heroic cast could have found a better screenplay to put all that energy into. Scorsese has been directing films for a long time now, and it is evident in this film that he is strong, confident and fluent in the process of filmmaking. But it seems his heart is not in it. Lawrence Toppman in the Charlotte Observer suggested that “this picture feels like an exercise by a Scorsese clone”. It is the best film anyone could have made of this screenplay without awakening their creativity, their imagination or their humanity. 

It is devoid of meaning and morality. And if I am wrong and there is morality intended in the ending, it is even more unforgivable. There is no redemption after the violence. The violence is redemption. And that is a repugnant conclusion, and it is irresponsible and unforgivable in an impactful Hollywood product such as this.

Finally, the last shot of the film offers a visual flourish so lame it contextualises the film perfectly.

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