Directed by Martin Scorcese
Screenplay by William Monahan, based on the film Infernal Affairs
Starrring Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damno, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg
Martin Scorsese should have an Oscar – Martin Scorsese should have a fistful of Oscars. A fistful in both hands. He is a legend of cinema, with talent enough that he can hop genres and eras with relative ease, making his style fit them all, no matter how disparate then may be. Better, he’s been consistently good for more than four decades, without the flameout in quality you get from many other so-called legends. Add to that he’s a student of film and treats it legitimately, and reverently, as art, and you can see why he should have more Oscars than he know what to do with.
But he doesn’t have more Oscars than he knows what to do with – he only has the one. Not for directing Raging Bull or Goodfellas, but as director of The Departed.
Let me ask you a question – which is worse:
- The wrong movie winning Best Picture – Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas?
- A filmmaker winning with a film not his best, or even one of his five or ten best – foe example, Martin Scorsese?
That is the essential question. Is it better to be snubbed for a near-masterwork, or be recognized for something clearer lesser?
Where I Stand?
You’d have to be an idiot to not have figured out I kind of feel like Scorsese’s win for The Departed didn’t happen because he actually directed it well, but was instead a career achievement award for a guy they feel like has a body of work that ‘earned’ it. That while this film is pretty good, it’s not good enough to be a film that would normally take the prize. But, because he might not have anything left in the tank as far as his directing career is concerned, and might never prudence a remotely-Oscar-worthy film again, he’s going to get an Oscar now because it’s the last chance the Academy might have to give him a competitive one.
What’s funny is this is actually the second Scorsese film to be tainted thus – back in 1986 Paul Newman won an Oscar for Color of Money, in which he was good, but was far from his best. This came a year after his Honorary Oscar, and so there really was no need for him to have a competitive one, other than people really wanted him to have one. So, like they did with Henry Fonda (On Golden Pond) and C.B. DeMille (The Greatest Show on Earth), Newman got his competitive Oscar, and so did Scorsese.
But, just because they did it before, doesn’t make it right.
Anyway, do a quick exercise for me. List Scorsese’s films, in no particular order, that are better than The Departed. Ready? Go.
Now, these are mine. Again, in no particular order:
- Taxi Driver
- The Aviator
- Raging Bull
- The King of Comedy
- The Wolf of Wall Street
- Cape Fear
To be fair, your list might be different, and given the breadth of his filmography, there’s bound to be some divergence. Some people are really into Hugo, others are into The Last Temptation of Christ. Nevertheless, look at that list – without breaking a sweat I named eight films better than The Departed from his own filmography. EIGHT! For four of these films, Scorsese was nominated for Best Director, for five the film was nominated for Best Picture. He was also nominated for writing a couple others. All this means that, on top of having eight films I find better than The Departed, he had plenty of other chances to win. And yet, the one he wins for would be what is, at best, his ninth best film – The Departed.
Oh, The Movie?
Obviously, everything above is all just preamble to a discussion about the movie itself. So, finally, here we are at the real question: what about the movie?
Well, The Departed is essentially a melodrama, only instead of being staged in drawing rooms and Victorian England between fainting women and stiff-lipped men, it takes place in Boston’s criminal underworld. The story, in a nutshell, follows two cops (Costigan and Sullivan), and two organizations (Massachusetts State Police and the Costello mob), as the two sides place a rat into the other’s organization. The whole of the story, then, is concerned with which side will be the first to ferret out the rat and which rat dies first.
Amidst this, there is a pseudo love triangle between Costigan and Sullivan over a state psychologist.
In the end, most everybody winds up dead, with only random chance choosing who survives.
So, You Didn’t Like It, Right?
Hold your horses, Tonto – I never said I didn’t like it. I only called it lesser-Scorsese and heavily implied it was a bit of an insult it’s the film he finally got an Oscar for. But practically speaking, I don’t love it, I don’t hate it, it’s just okay.
The problem is that, despite winning the Oscar for editing, The Departed feels bloated and repetitive. And derivative. And because it’s melodrama, everything must be spelled out and obvious and the heightened. So, for a crime film, it’s bloated, repetitive, and it paced terribly.
That being said, the first hour or so of the film has a real to it – it’s vintage Scorcese. There’s energy, there’s wit, there’s male masculinity oozing from every surface. But then…the love triangle kicks in. Then the hand-wringing over the rat begins. And people start stressing out about being undercover. And…and all at once the film seems to spin it’s wheels and only lumbers a bit towards the finish line. Instead of feeling like a slow-burn and a ratcheting of tension, in the end, it achieves neither.
It just sags.
Fortunately, the film has strong performances to carry it. The supporting crew is great, with Sheen, Walberg and Baldwin standing out. Farmiga is fine.
Of the leads, Dicaprio might be the weakest. In his own way, he’s as big and broad as he’s ever been, what with the accent and the emoting and it’s surprising the Academy didn’t eat it up. It’s the sort of performance they normally throw Oscar noms at.
Nicholson’s performance is easily the one you’d point to of the three leads as being bad. He’s distressingly broad at times and when I first saw the film in the theater, I thought Nicholson was having a laugh. Like, he couldn’t be bothered to play it subtle, so he went ahead and chewed every piece of scenery he could find. Rewatching it I softened on him a bit and see that while his performance is broad, it’s meant to be. After all, the film makes clear he’s a character who can’t really be taken down and as a result he’s come to see himself as bulletproof. Therefore, he does brazen things because, if there are no consequence, what’s to stop you from living out your id? So yes, Nicholson does take the thing over the top, but it has to be that way – his character is over-the-top. After all, as Dicraprio’s Costigan says, “He’s losing his fucking mind.” Watching Nicholson embody the role, you believe it.
Of the three leads, Damon was the one who got the least love, probably because in his part he’s the most subtle and controlled of them all. He’s so perfect at inhabiting the slimy, slithering double-agent you have to think that’s how he is all the time. Given how easily he convinces he’s genuine, it’s almost like he’s not giving a performance at all. But I guarantee you – put a lesser actor in the part and you’d see them flounder and then really understand just how essential Damon is to the film.
What Should Have Won?
This is a disgustingly difficult question to answer because, as it turns out, 2006 was a pretty good year for films – which makes it all-the-more annoying The Departed won. Of the nominees for Best Picture, I shade toward Little Miss Sunshine. Sure, it’s precious and loaded with quirk, but given I grew up in a fairly dysfunctional family, a lot of the stuff feels true to me.
Basically unnominated – aside from Meryl Streep – was The Devil Wears Prada, which might be the film I’ve actually seen the most from that year thanks to it being on FX repeatedly for a couple years. Even after seeing it so many times, it always feels fairly fresh.
Further down the list is Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth. I don’t love either film – I respect one, and didn’t really get the other – but I know others do and so I mention them here before dismissing them.
Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was basically overlooked, but it’s clearly the best Kirsten Dunst movie ever and I quite like it. Plus, it’s a triumph of style and genre-mashing, and even if nobody else seemed to buy into it, I did.
For a moment I considered Little Children, for much the same reasons as I do Little Miss Sunshine – it feels true. Plus, it’s got far better performances and rather than whimsy, it trucks in discomfort.
But, bearing all these movies in mind, the one I think has the lasting impact, and is proof of just what you can do with the art of the movies, is Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.
Blink and You Miss Him
My favorite TV show ever, and probably one of the greatest TV shows in history, is 30 Rock. If you know 30 Rock, then you know Kevin Brown played Dotcom in Tracy Jordan’s entourage. Well, it you look quick in the Leonardo Dicaprio is in jail sequence, you’ll spot Kevin Brown standing right behind Leo as the camera slides by.
See the rest of The Best Picture Project here.
See the companion series, the Also Rans Project, here.
 Here’s looking at you, Francis Ford Coppola.