Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Awards Season Review: The Departed

The Departed is a film Chock full of technical virtuosity, smartmouth writing, savage violence, and so much raw plot, story, and character material that it seems enough for several films. All the essential boxes were ticked off, yet all I could think when the lights rose was that maybe my impression of it it would improve after a few viewings. At which point I realized I hadn't enjoyed it enough to want to revisit it. All I had was the clammy awkwardness of high expectations dashed, of an undeniably lukewarm reaction to a film and director I wanted to love so badly.

The Departed is a film to be technically appreciated far more than it is to be enjoyed. However, there are very simple reasons why it doesn't work as well as his other films. My chief problem with the flick was that it's just crammed. Scorsese wants to tell a full-fledged cat-and-mouse crime story, as well as a fully realized character study. The end result is a crime story largely lacking a broad sense of tension and narrative momentum, and an undermotivated protagonist whose past is dealt with so cursorily in a brief expletive-laden dialogue, that it failed to provide a deeply-felt character launchpad to sustain Leo's arc over two and a half hours. There's lots of good stuff here; the dialogue crackles as expected, the direction is energetic and rife with Marty's usual audience-abusing bag of jarring grotesqueries, but for all the analysis that can be poured into it, it simply lacks fundamental emotional kick. Maybe because it's trying to do too much; maybe it's because all the compelling and cinematically important backstory was poured into a one-note character who changes the least. But most likely, it was because huge stories are not what Scorsese excels at. The Departed is too long, too much, and lacking the ferocious singularity of focus that made masterpieces of his earlier work. It's big. It's huge. It's complex. Unfortunately, simply understanding the myriad plot machinations does not make the film more emotionally interesting.

Maybe it's Leo's cursory backstory treatment that makes it tough to care about his present situation beyond a superficial scene-by-scene tension. Maybe it's the crammed, uneasy balance of cat-and-mouse plot and character-study that made the late revelation about Costello a relatively unexciting development, when it should have been a bombshell. Maybe this just isn't the sort of film Marty's comfortable making.

Elsewhere, in a discussion on Leo's Oscar chances, I summed up my feelings thusly:

I dunno about Leo, but Departed has a real shot at best pic. It's a Big Important Film pretending to be about Big Important Things with an all-star cast and an important director, and it has the added benefit of being deceptively hollow, unpleasant, and most important of all, quickly forgettable. And it's a critical and commercial darling. Frankly, it's a shoo-in.

Put another way, The Departed is a film that demands the utmost faculties of the viewer to learn things you don't want to know about characters you don't like. One of Marty's least interesting films.

Which, sadly, means it stands an excellent chance at Oscar gold.


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