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Notes on The Departed

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

Random Thoughts on Our Latest Oscar Winner

Image-You quickly forget that Scorsese opens the movie not with Jack Nicholson strolling through a flashback in Boston but with actual documentary footage from riot-era Boston (remember that there was a time when everyone wasn’t addicted to cable TV, when the disenfranchised actually rioted in cities for social change? How quaint!). Thing is, I’m not sure how anything that follows in the proceeding two and a half hours has anything whatsoever to do with this. Why has no one called Scorsese out on using actual footage of people getting beaten up for their political beliefs to set the tone for an escapist action flick? Not sure….but he does get a cool effect from it.



-I don’t know why the first full-on, fully-lit shot of Nicholson’s face during the flashback freaks me out so much, but it does. I can’t tell if he’s been airbrushed to look younger or if his aged, creepy “Old Jack” visage has been left totally untouched. It’s somehow both. All I know is that it’s like looking into the sun. I suspect this has something to do with the batshit insane look that’s in his eye in this shot…and in every shot of him taken since around 2000. I’d love to read Nicholson’s clinical results on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory after being Jack Nicholson for seventy years. I suspect they’d have to invent a new category in the DSM-IV.


-Does Scorsese now own the exclusive license for “Gimme Shelter”? Maybe Jagger and Richards gave him the rights in exchange for him making a documentary about them a full thirty years past their prime. The amazing thing is that it still works like gangbusters. I think I remember it being used in Goodfellas, Casino and now The Departed. Funny, I don’t remember hearing it during The Age of Innocence, Kundun, or The Aviator. Chances are much greater that the former three movies are on your all-time favorites list while the latter three are not. Coincidence? Is it possible that we’ve been OVER-rating Scorsese all these years and UNDER-rating “Gimme Shelter’? We need to test this out. Can somebody re-edit the opening of something like Nell or Baby Geniuses 2 with Keith Richards’ dark, seductive guitar licks over it and see if it turns into a four-star movie?

-Endless things to love about the prologue of this movie. Starting with how the movie title comes in so late and unexpectedly. God, Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker are geniuses. I don’t know why, but there’s just nothing better than a pre-title opening. If properly structured, the pre-title opening is this neat little autonomous cubby-hole where you can make a mini-version of your film, encapsulating the main themes in a much tighter and concise way than in the following full-length feature. What’s great about this one is that the first time you watch The Departed, after a while you don’t even realize you’re in the opening cubbyhole section; you think you’re in the movie proper. Then bam, there’s the title, twenty minutes in, backed by that awesome Irish screaming rock song and a bunch of tatted-up dudes in prison. They even insert a black title card "The Departed" into the middle of the dolly-pan across the prison. You can pretty much measure how great a Scorsese movie is by the number of times you think to yourself, "God, I wish I thought of that."


Don’t stare directly at it!

-Lost in all the ruckus over “Gimme Shelter” and that awesome Irish screaming rock song is the piece of music that really makes the movie work: the sort of driving classical guitar thing that links the whole Matt Damon and Leo going through the academy section, as well as a lot of the rest of the movie. As far as I can tell, this is part of the original score by Howard Shore. It does everything you can ask of a piece of music in a movie devoted to hyperkinetically bulling forward at full speed through a complicated plot. It connects all the characters with a vaguely Boston mood and it propels you from scene to scene to scene. The fast-cut opening montage would simply not work without it. This proves once again that Scorsese (and Schoonmaker, presumably) is an absolute genius at using music in films, and that Howard Shore ain't bad either. Except during the end credit sequence of Gangs of New York. An original song by U2 called “The Hands that Built America”? I was half-convinced that Scorsese had died during the filming of Gangs and Harvey Weinstein had finished the film himself until the Scorsese We Know and Love threw “Gimme Shelter” into The Departed four years later.

-The more times I watch this movie, the more I realize two things: 1) this movie is ridiculously rewatchable, and 2) Matt Damon’s character–even leaving for a second that he’s an organized crime mole in the police department–is an absolute asshole.

1) This first point isn’t all that surprising. Scorsese excels at making not just amazing movies but at making movies you can watch over and over and over and get the same (or even more) enjoyment out of. But not all of his movies are like this. His truly ridiculously rewatchable movies are Goodfellas and (especially) Casino. I can pretty much pop Casino in any time, day or night, and enjoy it as much as I did the first time. Plus, it has a very short refractory period. Some highly rewatchable movies (like Boogie Nights) are only rewatchable after you haven’t seen them for a year or so and have half-forgotten most of the scenes. The Casino refractory period is about two months for me, or any time I read a book or have a conversation that somehow involves Vegas. I think these movies are so rewatchable, by the way, because they are what Quentin Tarantino would call “hang-out movies.” The kinds of movies that feature a large, colorful, highly likable cast, and where popping the DVD in is like hanging out with these people for two to three hours. This would explain why Taxi Driver or Raging Bull are nowhere near as rewatchable as Goodfellas or Casino (although they’re still fairly rewatchable), even though I’d consider both to be “better” movies. Good luck figuring that one out. Anyway, it’s still way too early to definitively say, but I think The Departed is going to take it’s place next to Goodfellas and Casino as movies I get an itch to watch at least once a year.

2) Seriously, what’s this guy’s problem? I know that Jack Nicholson taught him from an early age that nobody gives you nothing in this world–you have to take it–but how can anybody stand this prick? He stares at and hits on every single woman in his line of sight, whistling at their asses and calling them “sweetheart.” He’s got a smug, know-it-all look on his face at every second of the day, even when dealing with superiors, and he’s a total asshole to Vera Farmiga. I know that a point is being made about how assholes tend to get fast-tracked at work and get lots of women because they’re assertive, but you’re telling me Marky Mark is the only one at work who would punch this guy’s lights out after spending two minutes in a room with him? I always imagined this is how Ben Affleck acts in real life, not Matt Damon.


Sorry, Matt, Leo and I are BFF’s.

-Speaking of Matt Damon, one of the great urban legends in Hollywood is that William Goldman (Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men) ghost-wrote Good Will Hunting for Damon and Affleck. Now that ten years has passed and Damon and Affleck not only haven’t written another good movie, they haven’t written another movie at all (Damon’s credit on the screenplay-less Gerry obviously doesn’t count), I think it’s fairly safe to suggest we move this story from “urban legend” to “almost fact.” 


-I’m pretty sure there’s no way Mark Wahlberg’s character could actually exist in the real world. And if he did, he wouldn’t be a highly-functioning upper-level police officer; he’d be locked up in solitary confinement in a Supermax prison somewhere. Does he always act like this, or only when he’s talking to subordinates? Can you imagine this guy’s home life? Since he and Alec Baldwin are the only big male characters to survive the movie, and there’s already been sequel talk, is there a chance we’re going to get to see him browbeating his five-year old kid when he drops him off at kindergarten? (“Me getting you to school late would imply that I’m a cunt. Are you calling me a cunt?”)

-One of the best things about every Scorsese movie is how many ringers there are throughout the supporting cast. Who else can get Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, and Martin Sheen to sign on for such tiny roles? The Departed easily has Scorsese’s highest ringer-quotient since Casino, which had James Woods, Don Rickles, and a then-hot Kevin Pollak in glorified cameos. It’s no accident that Scorsese can get these kinds of people: these were career highs for a lot of these guys, and worthy additions to long filmographies for guys like Sheen and Baldwin. James Woods’ Lester Diamond is one of my favorite movie characters of all time, and he’s only got like four scenes in a three-hour movie.


-Who did Mr. French’s hair on this movie? Did Scorsese just tell Ray Winstone (who plays Nicholson’s #2)  to stop washing it for a decade? Plus, every piece of clothing he wears is so limp it looks like it’s gone through about fifty thousand wash cycles. Aspiring directors: those are the details that make a film with a plot as ridiculous as The Departed somehow feel authentic. I’d like to state for the record right here that I’d like to see Ray Winstone a lot more in the future. He’s criminally underused in the U.S.


-I’m no expert on the street value of cocaine, but from what I do know, it seems like Nicholson wastes like two to three hundred thousand dollars when he picks up the coke and carelessly flings it at the high-class callgirl he took out to the opera. Based on the crimes we’ve seen Frank Costello commit in this movie, I just can’t believe he’s got that kind of money to waste. Then again, from his own reports, Scorsese knows what he’s talking about when it comes to cocaine, so I’ll let this one go.



Yeah, right.

-Is Vera Farmiga a really good actress who does a lot with a small part, or was I overly influenced by the big New York Times Magazine article about how she’s a really good actress who does a lot with small parts that came out during the pre-release publicity for The Departed? It’s an impossible to answer, chicken-or-the-egg question. She seems like she’s really good, though, especially during her big dinner date with Matt Damon. She does some really cool eye work. I’m not sure if “eye work” is a technical term for serious actors, but it should be. She slightly widens her eyes and darts them to the side when Damon is aggressively flirting with her, suggesting she’s both taken aback and turned on by his dick-on-the-table approach to flirting. She’s not conventionally beautiful, and it’s kind of a thankless sexual object role, but I find myself mightily attracted to her in this movie, and I suspect that it’s because she does the whole “I’m attracted to you despite myself” routine so realistically. The shot of her rolling on the bed with Leo in skimpy black panties probably helps, too.


-One thing about this film’s structure I’ve noticed after multiple viewings is how rarely scenes are allowed to play out in their entirety. Even in scenes where there’s no obvious cross-cutting to do (like when the cops are monitoring the microchip handoff from afar), things are always intercut with each other. This is no accident. Think about how much exposition you’ve got to get out of the way in this movie before you can get down to action. You’ve got to establish Nicholson, his gang, his taking Matt Damon under his wing as a child, placing him in the police academy, getting promoted to the right division, meeting the other players in the police department, etc. You’ve got to see Leo go through the academy, learn why his roots make him a good candidate to go undercover, watch him go to prison, watch him slowly worm his way into Nicholson’s crew, meet Nicholson’s crew, etc. This is particularly true in the first half of the movie, and I think that’s one of the techniques that really helps Scorsese (and writer William Monohan and editor Schoonmaker) elevate this pulpy material. Pay particular attention to how much Leo’s initial interview with Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen is intercut with other stuff. Here is a list of all the little scenelets that are cut to during this interview:

            1) Matt Damon classily whistling at a female coworker’s ass.

            2. Alec Baldwin briefing the new members of his team on Nicholson’s gang.

            3) Leo at his mom’s sickbed.

            4) Leo telling off his mean uncle.

            5) Matt Damon getting a new apartment

            6) Leo at his mom’s funeral.


…and Starring Mark Wahlberg as a Hobbit.

And then back to finish their interview, where he agrees to go undercover. Whew. This incredible rush of forward momentum created through cross-editing makes you forget the fact that you’re ingesting massive amounts of exposition, character establishment, and foreshadowing. Nice. 


-Don’t you love how hot, intelligent, interesting 29 year old women like Vera Farmiga always happen to be single in the movies? Forget Mark Wahlberg’s character not being able to exist in the real-world; how would she not have a fiancé or boyfriend stashed away somewhere? She’s so desperate she moves in with an impotent cop who treats her like shit? Then throws herself at a convicted felon fresh out of prison who verbally assaults her in her office and then shows up unannounced and uninvited at her apartment? Sounds like I need to move to Boston.

-Andy Breving, a guy I went to college with, is supposedly in the scene where Matt Damon leads the FBI and Staties cops in the control room while they’re watching Nicholson deal stolen “microchips,” but damned if I can find him. He must’ve changed a lot since college. I know that that point probably doesn’t interest a lot of people, but I felt I had to say this.


-Did Thelma Schoonmaker piece together the microchip-buying scene with lost footage from The Replacement Killers? Maybe the Chinese gang is Scorsese’s nod to the original Departed (Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs), but these guys feel like they belong in another movie. With lots of slow motion shots of people firing two pistols at once while empty shells arc beautifully out of the chamber towards the ground. Not the highlight of the fllm


-The Red Baron pointed this out to me: Scorsese’s been quoted as saying he doesn’t “understand” the modern world, and I kind of think he’s right to say that after watching The Departed. Keep in mind that this is his only movie in twenty years to be set in the present (okay, Cape Fear is technically set in the present, but really it’s set in the Golden Age of Hollywood for all its homages to such), in the days of cell phones and yuppies living downtown. Do you see any yuppies in The Departed? Does it feel like Boston in 2007 to you, or does it feel like the Boston featured in the riot clips from the 70s at the beginning of the movie? A “Mean Streets” guy like Scorsese has no place in the effeminate world most white youths live in today. There are no working class ghettos (as featured in Raging Bull) or Dantesque red light distrcits (as featured in Taxi Driver) in Manhattan (or Boston, his Manhattan-surrogate here) now: these days, you have to literally be a multi-millionaire (like Scorsese) to live on the island of Manhattan. The Boston of The Departed is seedy, working-class, crumbling, with no Jamba Juices in sight. Sure, this movie is about cops and crooks, who tend to be working class, but they have to inhabit the same city as the yuppies who now control large swaths of all of our big cities. When Leo meets Martin Sheen on the roof of an empty warehouse building, it’s not being renovated to be turned into condos. It’s just abandoned. Scorsese’s best films have authenticity in spades, and this lack of countenancing the city these characters live in (along with the pulpy plot) is what keeps The Departed from truly taking its place among his best films, I contend.


-Excellent bonus DVD, by the way. Check out the hour-and-a-half “Scorsese on Scorsese” documentary.


-Do they really need to keep sending Leo text messages when he’s following Mat Damon in the porn theater? He’s a cop, not a robot requiring input in order to act. He doesn’t know he should “Follow suspect,” “Make visual I.D.,” and “Make arrest”? He needs Martin Sheen sitting at his wife’s supper table sending him text messages to do it? See, this is what I mean about Scorsese not really understanding the modern world. Sure, that was probably in the screenplay, but Scorsese the Director should have sniffed that piece of ridiculousness out and vaporized it. It just makes me suspect that not only does the 64-year old Scorsese probably need his assistant to turn on his cell phone for him, he probably had to have him explain what “text messaging” is when he first got the script.



Remember this?

-I’ve probably seen ten thousand people get shot on film, but why does it feel like I’ve never seen a head-shot as jarring as Leo’s? Obviously, a lot of it has to do with how it comes at a very surprising moment and how there’s a huge brain-spray onto the back of the elevator, but I think there’s something else here, too. Whenever a main character gets shot on film, even if they’re going to die, they almost always get shot in the chest or gut, so they have a few more moments to live and we can be by their bedside and witness their Oscar moments. Leonardo DiCaprio gets shot in the head in a way that there’s absolutely no mistaking the fact that he is instantly dead. One second he’s alive, the next he’s dead. There’s no moment in between, where the filmmaker allows us to come to terms with this (like when Matt Damon shoots Nicholson with a couple different volleys of bullets to make sure he’s dead). Imagine if, in the final season of the Sopranos, some Johnny Sacks foot soldier suddenly steps into frame and puts two bullets in Tony Soprano’s head without Tony even realizing he’s in danger. This would totally violate every known law of drama and protagonist treatment in the annals of film and theater (although it would be a pretty bold choice. David Chase, are you reading this?) Killing a beloved character off instantaneously is surprisingly rare, I think, among the thousands upon thousands of movie deaths that have been portrayed. In fact, come to think of it, the best head shot before The Departed  was Pesci getting whacked in the back of the head in Goodfellas, which was directed by….

-Here’s the two big plot problems that keep The Departed from being an unqualified piece of genius for me:

1) The disparity between how big Nicholson’s crime boss supposedly is and the actual stuff he does.

When the action proper of the movie starts, our two cop protagonists, Matt and Leo, are both ostensibly dispatched in unique ways to take down Jack Nicholson (playing Frank Costello), a local crime figure so notorious and powerful that Alec Baldwin says he needs “no introduction” when he switches to his slide during the Costello Gang Slideshow.  Matt Damon joins one of TWO departments devoted almost exclusively toward taking this guy down. And yet Costello’s gang seems to have four members. When he takes undercover cop Leo into the fold, it becomes five. Leo, a new soldier in the outfit, immediately works directly with both Costello and his number 2, Mr. French. The movie plays Costello up like he owns Boston. Yet Leo works directly with him. Would Michael Corleogne have a street-level soldier over to the house for lobster? Costello’s gang is so small that he himself has to go along on their drug deals. Given all that Scorsese himself has taught us about how organized crime works in Goodfellas and Casino (not to mention what Goodfellas-inspired David Chase has shown us in 60+ episodes of The Sopranos), how are we supposed to buy this?

2) There are more undercover agents in Costello’s crew than there are actual criminals.

Mr. Show once did a sketch about an undercover reporter who infiltrates the Klu Klux Klan, only to discover that the entire Klan was made up of undercover reporters who had “infiltrated” the Klan. This was a comedy sketch. The Departed features basically the same premise transposed to the world of cops and robbers, but it takes itself dead seriously. Not only is our hero, Leonardo DiCaprio, an undercover cop, but so, it turns out, is the White Haired Guy in Nicholson’s gang. And so is NICHOLSON. The only people in the gang who AREN’T either undercover cops or snitches are Mr. French and the Broken-Voiced Guy. 60% of the gang is cooperating with the police–including the main guy, who’s their target. What is the fucking point of this big sting operation? Plus, it turns out that not only is Matt Damon a mole in the police department working for Nicholson’s fearsome five man crime operation, but another minor character is as well. That’s over one undercover policeman for every two people in Nicholson’s gang!

Now, I can already hear the objections to this: that’s the point of The Departed. That’s the theme. Um, okay, sure. "Almost everyone in the mob and the police force are undercover moles" is the theme. Yeah, that’s a really serious problem these days. I just read three articles on the front page of the New York Times about this. Thank god a serious artist finally had the balls to come along and tackle the subject.

My overriding point is not that this makes The Departed bad. It’s just that it makes it silly, especially in comparison to Scorsese’s other, superior (though not necessarily more rewatchable) films. And part of the fun of The Departed, I think, is that you can make fun of it while you watch. That’s something new for a Scorsese movie, no doubt, but it’s not necessarily a totally bad thing.