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Wednesday, 6 December 2006

The Departed

Everyone raved about The Departed. Everyone said it was one of the best films they'd seen in years; moving and compelling, violent but not gratuitously so, ambitious in scale and achievement; a return to form for Martin Scorcese, whose films everyone desperately wants to love, because if Scorcese succeeds then doesn't it prove there are still some true American auteurs out there?

Maybe my expectations were too high.

Certainly it was gripping and the time went pretty fast while we were watching it, but then I get gripped watching ER or CSI or even Invasion, none of which are artistic masterpieces, just slices of slickly produced adrenaline rush tv, full of showy, self-conscious editing and overblown, overemphatic soundtracks, all of which serves to disguise the lack of narrative depth or character development... But that's unfair, ER does sometimes have narrative depth and some of the staff like Nurse Hathaway are considerably developed characters.

But back to The Departed. Basically my problem with the film is mainly to do with:

1) the violence
2) the soundtrack
3) the rubbish female characterisation

Let's deal with the soundtrack, since that's simplest to explain. It was all over the place. Not only did the mood and tone of the music rarely enhance the mood or emotion on screen, it often detracted from it. There was hardly a moment's silence in the film; almost as though Scorcese was afraid of allowing the script to breathe by itself, a strange fear since much of the dialogue was remarkably well written and could have benefited from the space to echo around its speakers. Instead of which it was often sidelined by completely inappropriate music that made no thematic sense.

The violence, which my friend had warned me about but had insisted was not gratuitous, seemed to me to represent a backwards step in filmmaking terms; a lazy, crowd-pleasing regression to the shoot-em-up, gangsta trippin, consequence-less destruction that populates (or rather depopulates) mob films from the forties, except Scorcese is not too proud to steal a trick or five from Tarantino, and even a few camera moves from the Wachowski bros alongside some gimmicky MTV-style editing. Peter Bradshaw raved about this "unapologetic, unironised crime-family drama, which the director puts over like a roundhouse punch" and certainly the feel of the film is proud-to-be-brutal, proud to dramatize and sensationalize horrible acts of violence because doesn't that thrill us all at some level? (and it doesn't matter how base that level is) And who cares about seeing the actual repercussions of shooting five, six, seven people in their face when you can instead cut to a hilarious shot of the somehow unfailingly charismatic Nicholson as psycho-godfather proudly explaining how he's never had trouble 'getting cunt', who is feared but also loved by his lackeys, who wisecracks the best jokes in the film...

There are films that include but justify their use of extreme brutality, such as Mereilles' breathtakingly tragic 'City of God', documenting the personal, familial and societal repercussions of violence with unforgettable insight. Scorcese's own 'Goodfellas' was a grown-up film in this respect; its emotional clout comes from the way it gradually drains all the glamour from the gangster world Ray Liotta's Henry Hill is sucked into; a poisonous, self-destructive place in which all good things slip away. Scorcese left viewers in no doubt that violence could not be taken - or adminstered - lightly, except in cases of the most debilitating, unenviable psychosis. Nicholson is certainly some kind of psycho in 'The Departed', but nevertheless a heavily glamourised one, with a ridiculously compliant, beautiful and witty girlfriend who not only gives him blow jobs on tap, but is also happy to share him with a random other woman, stroke his hair when he's feeling sad and make clever comments before she offers to get down on her knees for him yet again.

Which brings me to my final complaint. What the hell happened to the female characters in this film? There are basically only two; the tiny supporting role that I have just described, and then the sexy police psychiatrist who is the love interest of both Matt Damon and Leonardo Dicaprio. In the original 'Infernal Affairs', there were two female lead characters and it is telling that Scorcese thought it acceptable to simply merge them into one; this would have been excusable if it had led to a deeper, more complex characterisation, but I can honestly say The Departed's female lead is one of the most two dimensional roles I've seen in years; she's nothing more than a piece of pliable putty for the different male characters to play with and mould to their own desires. A lot of the blame here must lie with the script writer, for failing to imagine or present a female psyche strong or intelligent enough to rival the male ones that dominate the film and its self-consciously macho universe.

Overall, a disappointing film and certainly not worthy of the adulatory reviews it's received. I can only hope the Oscar judges don't fall prey to the temptation of rewarding Scorcese for his long career by handing him a clutch of statuettes for a film that doesn't do justice to his own considerable talents, nor those of the actors he employed.

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