Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
By Roderick Heath
John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Bernardo Bertolucci, Carol Reed, Robert Wise, and George Cukor are some great directors who gained Oscar triumph for films that were, by their standards, second-rate or impersonal works. So, Martin Scorsese finally gaining his statuette for a patchy remake of a slick Hong Kong crime drama seems almost appropriate. The Departed, an American remake of Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao, 2002), directed by Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak, was greeted by many as a return to form, as if the last 15 years of Scorsese’s career hadn’t been a series of virtuoso, chameleonlike experiments.
The appeal of Hong Kong genre cinema—Infernal Affairs included—is due to its dedication to the Old Hollywood formula: simplicity of technique, broadness of appeal, rigour of story craft, and adherence to archetypal. Infernal Affairs plays like a James Cagney-Humphrey Bogart vehicle shot with the style of a Sony commercial, and was made watchable largely by excellent, yet resolutely unshowy, acting by Tony Leung as Chan Wing Yan, a policeman undercover in a mob, Andy Lau as Lau Kin Ming, his opposite, a gangland mole in the police department, and Eric Tsang’s Hon Sam, a perpetually smiling, calmly malevolent godfather.
These three characters become William “Billy” Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), and Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), all hailing from the blue-collar, ethnic Irish suburbs of South Boston. What Scorsese and his Bostonian screenwriter William Monahan brought to the material was a sense of local, ethnic, macho culture missing from the original and, for the first hour, a steely sense of social folklore and personal drama, with many unsentimental, amusing observations on class and race in Boston. Scorsese introduces us to the fractured sensibility of the city via news footage of 1960s race riots and the commanding voice of Costello proclaiming “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me!” Costello, kingpin of the Irish mobsters, struts with untouchable confidence. In the late 1980s, he enters a grocery store, makes obscene advances on the owner’s teenage daughter, and recognises the young Colin Sullivan (Conor Donovan) as a boy of potential. (“You do well in school?” “Yeah.” “Good. So did I. They call that a paradox.”) Soon Costello lectures Colin and other talented tykes in the lore of tough-guy necessities: “When I was growing up, they would say you could become cops or criminals. But what I’m saying is this. When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”
Skip forward 15 years or so. Sullivan is in training to join the Massachusetts State Police; so is Costigan, a hot-headed young man whose mother is dying of cancer. Costigan’s uncle was a crime boss, but his father, despite being superlatively tough, rejected the mob and worked his whole life as an airport baggage handler. His mother was from the more genteel end of town. Costigan thus loathes his blue-blood relatives and his criminal kin equally. He is soon picked as a perfect candidate by two senior officers—the fatherly Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the provocative, profane Dignam (Mark Wahlberg)—to become a mole. Dignam digs at Costigan’s psyche and generally takes the endemic Yankee-Irish verbal abuse to new heights of hilarious insult. Underneath this is a rock-solid commitment to the job at hand, and Costigan is offered some “real police work.” He is to appear to be kicked off the force and jailed for assault, then seek a way to infiltrate the mob. Simultaneously, Sullivan, smooth and confident, is earmarked for rapid promotion. He joins a squad headed by Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) that is looking to take Costello down.
Each man soon is engaged in a paranoid duel with a mystery doppelganger burrowed into their home organisation and threatening the other’s safety. Each has a quasipaternal relationship with the monstrous Costello. In this way, with its highly Irish flavour, The Departed becomes a modern-dress remake of Gangs of New York; as a father figure like Bill the Butcher, resplendent in his masculine prowess, Costello lolls with multiple women in bed (under a shower of cocaine no less) dealing with an inadequate son who is not what he pretends to be—except here the son is split into good and bad twins. All three figures are characterized with a depth Infernal Affairs avoided—which in the case of Costello doesn’t achieve much. Initially presented as a cool, intelligent, but utterly savage enforcer, rising in the opening as the cynical voice of a tough and fractured city, Costello enjoys deft verbal tussles with Queenan and Dignam and provokes the local clergy with amusingly vicious admonitions about pederasty and breaking one’s vows with pretty nuns. Yet he dissolves into a dull-witted, cartoonish monster—much, but not all, of which is the fault of Nicholson and his latter-day propensity for showboating. Unlike other corrupt surrogate father figures in Scorsese’s films—Bill the Butcher or Paulie or Jimmy the Gent or even Eddie Felson—Costello is required chiefly to be a monstrous foil in a melodrama.
Sullivan, like a classic Scorsese antihero, is motivated by desire to get ahead; for him, being both an exceptionally good policeman and Costello’s agent are complementary ideas. He eyes the gold dome of the city hall with hope and ambition, and buys a swanky flat in sight of it. But inner tension manifests itself in a crippled sexuality. With wit and skill, he romances Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), a state-employed psychiatrist who deals with police trauma and violent offenders. He coaxes her into a relationship that is troubled by his lack of emotional clarity and bouts of impotence. Costello doesn’t help by making sexual threats towards Madolyn if Sullivan fails him. Costigan has to visit Madolyn both to maintain his cover—she is his court-appointed shrink—and as a relief valve for his assailed psyche. Costigan, whilst in her office, is a ball of scarcely compressed rage and desperation, demanding drugs to numb him from his sleepless agitation. Soon he’s yanking off her underwear when she succumbs to a moment of relationship jitters. The idea of two men sharing a life so tightly interwoven that they sleep with the same woman and still don’t know each other’s identity, seems fit for a truly mind-warping psychodrama, but this doesn’t eventuate. Madolyn, despite her spunk and intelligence, doesn’t get to be much more than sideshow in this orgy of Men’s Business.
Costigan deals drugs with his dimwitted cousin Sean (Kevin Corrigan) and gets a reputation for impressive violence. When he beats up two foot soldiers from Mafia-controlled Providence who are trying to enforce protection in Boston, Costello informs him that unless he intercedes, Costigan will undoubtedly end up whacked. In return for leaving the two hoods in a park with bullets in their heads, Costigan is inducted into Costello’s entourage of thick thugs, which includes his intimidating, but soft-spoken lieutenant, Mr. French (Ray Winstone). Costello’s big score for the year is a stolen shipment of microprocessors that he proceeds to sell to some heavies paid by the Chinese government. Ellerby, Queenan, Dignam, and their men uneasily join to arrest them in the act, but Sullivan has given Costello a chance to make his deal (which is a scam anyway) and escape. With both sides realising they have rats in the ranks, an increasingly loopy Costello sniffs out his own men, most specifically new boy Costigan, whilst Sullivan finds himself handed the alienating but highly convenient task of seeking out the mole in the force. Sullivan promptly uses his new powers to have Queenan followed, hoping he’ll be seen meeting with his man in Costello’s mob. This nearly works; when Queenan meets Costigan in an empty building, Sullivan has Costello’s boys descend on the locale. Costigan slips away, and the frustrated thugs throw a tight-lipped Queenan to his death from the window, prompting a gunfight with the cops watching for him.
Most of the entertainment value of The Departed comes from its souped-up cast, all kept on their toes by Scorsese and armed with fierce dialogue by Monahan. For DiCaprio, it’s possibly the best performance of his career; his efforts to be tough in Gangs of New York and mercurial in The Aviator look pallid compared to the lean, mean, half-mad characterization he presents here of a guy with adrenalin so constantly drugging his synapses he can barely tell black from white anymore. Damon, though fine, has an easier time, largely because he’s played variations on this part before—a benign-seeming young man who is actually emotionally closed-off and inherently dangerous, with deep, underlying social and paternal resentments. It’s more impressive for him to play Jason Bourne, who has many of the same characteristics and is still our hero. Many of the interchanges, particularly those involving Wahlberg’s salty mouth provide classic Scorsese macho confrontations, as cops and hoods gouge each other with insults and epithets, jockeying for supremacy of both competence and attitude. For example, Dignam upbraids an incompetent surveillance with “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”
Much of this pleasure drains away in the plot-heavy second half, leaving behind the interesting social and character elements. After Queenan’s death, for which Sullivan is blamed, Dignam assaults him and resigns rather than hand over to Sullivan the password for Queenan’s encrypted computer files that contain Costigan’s details. Sullivan sets up Costello in a drug deal; most of the gang perish in the ensuing battle. Sullivan kills Costello himself. This is not so much because, as with Lau Kin Ming in Infernal Affairs, he realises he longs to be a cop and a good guy, but for the less weirdly positive reason that Sullivan feels betrayed on discovering, thanks to Costigan’s digging, that Costello is a federal informant and also is resentful of his brutal father figure. When Costello, coughing up blood, says Sullivan’s been like a son to him, the young man provokes him by suggesting Costello needed a surrogate son because, despite his self-trumpeting sexual capacity, he’s been shooting blanks all these years. The shot Costello takes at him gives Sullivan final cause to fill his abusive patriarch with lead.
Costigan can finally come in from the cold. Waiting in Sullivan’s office, he recognises an envelope he himself had written on containing all the Costello’s crew personal details on Sullivan’s desk. Costigan realises Sullivan is the mole and flees. Sullivan panics and deletes Costigan’s records from Queenan’s computer. Costigan tries to shake Sullivan’s life to pieces by mailing to Madolyn a recording he dug up of Costello and Sullivan talking. Madolyn is, of course, less than ecstatic. Sullivan goes to a meeting arranged with Costigan, but he has no intention of making a deal, intending instead to take him by surprise and arrest him. “Just fucking kill me!” Sullivan begs. “I am killing you.” Costigan assures him. But Costigan gets his brains splattered all over the wall of an elevator by another cop, Barrigan (James Budge Dale), who reveals himself as a second Costello plant; he also kills Brown (Anthony Anderson), one of the few other officers who remembered Costigan from training. Sullivan shoots Barrigan in the head, eliminating the last known link of him to Costello. Costigan is given a hero’s funeral after Sullivan reports he and Brown died trying to take in the mole Barrigan.
This almost parodic proliferation of brainless bodies is more or less where Infernal Affairs concludes. Instead of giving us two sequels, however, as followed that film, The Departed delivers a sharp coda in which Sullivan, thinking he has triumphed, continues his everyday life, but returns home from grocery shopping to find Dignam waiting in his apartment, armed with a silenced pistol. Dignam has worked out everything and determined to remedy it in the most direct fashion by shooting a resigned Sullivan in the head. The final shot shows a rat crawling across the rail of Sullivan’s apartment, backgrounded by the gold dome towards which Sullivan had looked with hope.
It’s a symbolic joke that sums up the film itself—gritty, cynical, and funny, but also facile and broad. The self-parodying trend is extended in Nicholson’s performance as Costello literally sniffs out a rat and in one scene, appears bathed in blood with no explanation, like a Monty Python gag. Scorsese’s stylistic imagination is almost entirely quelled, except for some self-referencing snatches, as when his camera makes a lateral dolly past DiCaprio doing push-ups in his cell, a Cape Fear quote. Apparently all a Scorsese film is, according to some people, is swearing, shootings in the head, and Rolling Stones songs played loud. Scorsese felt empowered to make a good genre film by the legacies of directors like Robert Aldrich, Samuel Fuller, and Don Siegel, and his hand on the helm ensures the film is constructed with some fearsomely good editing and structuring. The experimentation in story-through-montage in Goodfellas, Casino, and Kundun proves useful for commercial purposes in the fleet-footed skill with which The Departed sets up and puts in motion its story. But with its overly long, overly tricky story, and relatively bland style, The Departed is very much a well-done genre film of today, not one of the superbly done genre films of yesterday. In Scorsese’s best works, social context is everything, but in The Departed, it is thoroughly subordinated to constructing a cops-and-robbers drama. Yet, The Departed feels unusually true to the zeitgeist in that it depicts an age where officialdom is infiltrated by the self-serving and disloyal, and the true warriors are isolated, frustrated, and doomed.
The Departed is Scorsese’s most financially successful film to date, and seems set for the foreseeable future to remain his most mainstream-appreciated work. If nothing else, it stands as the most honourably foul-mouthed Best Picture winner ever. And yet it’s a minor film in his career, one of his least fully realised, garbled in theme and story. It surely won’t be the end of Scorsese the creative force; his next two projects on the books The Silence, about Christian missionaries in 17th century Japan, and The Rise of Teddy Roosevelt, to star DiCaprio as energetic patrician populist, promise meaty material and chances to extend Scorsese’s life-long fascination with religion, cultural struggle, and history.