The best new film I’ve seen this year is Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
I recommend the excellent Observer review by Phillip French.
The Departed is screen-writer William Monahan’s transposition of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs from Hong Kong to his native Boston. The Asian movie turns that familiar story of the undercover agent into an elaborately symmetrical thriller in which a Triad boss orders a teenage gangster to enrol in the Hong Kong Police while the cops pick a police academy trainee to infi ltrate the Triads, and they’re played by the charismatic Andy Lau and Tony Leung. As the two moles bore in different directions they become attached to attractive women, one of them a novelist writing a book about a man with multiple personalities, the other a female psychiatrist treating the undercover cop for anger management.
In The Departed, Damon’s Sullivan and DiCaprio’s Costigan become the contrasted moles, and they look so alike that we immediately think of them as doppel-gangers. Sullivan is seduced by the prospect of professional acceptance and social respectability, while Costigan is appalled by the thrill he gets from letting his Id off the leash and acting like a violent criminal. The two exotic heroines in the Hong Kong movie are here conflated into an idealistic female shrink (Vera Farmiga), who becomes Sullivan’s redemptive love and the court-appointed therapist of the supposedly disgraced ex-academy cadet Costigan. With both she engages in mind games involving identity. With the gangster posing as a cop she discusses Freud’s claim that the Irish are the only people impervious to psychoanalysis. She tells the cop posing as a gangster that ‘honesty is not synonymous with truth’. When the police and the gangsters realise simultaneously that they have an informer in their midst, the narrative both literally and symbolically involves Costigan and Sullivan taking on the task of searching for themselves and for each other.
The twilight world of deception and self-deception reminds one of the moles in John le Carre’s novels, and of the confused double agent in Tom Stoppard’s radio play The Dog It Was That Died who confesses to his control: ‘I’ve forgotten who’s my primary employer and who is my secondary … just carried on doing what I was told, and one day, not very long ago, I started thinking about my retirement. The sherry party with the Chief. The presentation clock. The London senior citizens bus pass. The little dacha on the Vistula.’
I think, ironically, The Departed stands a good chance of becoming the film for which Scorsese is best remembered. I say ironically, because he has directed so many films drawing upon his own Italian-American roots, and this film communicates an understanding of the Irish in America more penetrating than John Ford’s.
Scorsese has produced a wonderful film, encapsulating, and mirroring in its plot, the contradictions of the Irish-American identity, the ever-present twin-attracting polarities of Police Force service and organized crime.
The Departed strikes a chord in its depiction of the fundamental bases of the Irish-American character: its limitless admiration for the combination of the capacity to inflict violence with the capacity to endure the same, and its firm belief in the absolute disgrace of refusing a dare. “God hates a coward” was a common saying in the ethnic Irish community I knew when I was growing up. But the film’s greatest achievement lies in its remarkable portrait of the deeply and profoundly conflicted Irish-Catholic conscience, its extraordinary capacity for betrayal, and its equivalent capacity for guilt. The Departed will be showing in double bills with John Ford’s The Informer for years to come.
Nicholson’s rat impression ought to receive some special cinematic performance award.
The film did have one sequence which rang completely counterfeit. In an establishing flashback sequence, early in the film, Nicholson’s Frank Costello extorts protection money from the proprietor of a mom-and-pop drugstore, then proceeds to humiliate the owner by making sexually insinuating remarks to his pubescent daughter in front of her humiliated father. Absurd. No leader of men would ever push a cornered mouse so hard that most mice would attack. No ethnic Catholic crime boss, basing his power on his prestige in the ethnic community, would undermine his own credentials by dishonoring the defenseless. That shop-owner might be a mouse, but he would always have brothers and cousins and family friends. There would always be someone somewhere to avenge so serious, so deadly an insult. Scorsese has been living uptown, among the intelligentsia, too long. He’s forgotten how things really worked.