Questions for THE DEPARTED

So I saw Scorsese’s new film The Departed this weekend. Overall, I really enjoyed it. It was a kind of a cartoonish throwback to the macho, violent movies of the 80s and 90s that seemed to dominant theatres. I was fascinated with those films when I was in my 20s but felt over-saturated by them into my 30s. Also, seeing them in many ways through Sari’s eyes over the years made me see how myopic, cheap, and manipulative they could be. Nonetheless, there were definitely some terrific, lasting films from that era (many of them made by Scorsese).

Anyway, there was something fun about revisiting those films through The Departed. Plus, how can you resist that cast: DiCaprio, Nicholson, Damon, Martin Sheen, Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga!? DiCaprio was particularly good at playing the tortured but well-meaning guy who just never gets a break. I was surprised at how powerful a performance he gives, especially in scenes he shares with heavyweights like Nicholson. Jack is pure Jack, gnashing up the screen in his best late-career devil-may-care way. (Sari summed him up perfectly in characterizing him as part algae and part wolf!) And Farmiga is excellent too as the only female character of note and in a very tough, pivotal role! The movie works really well in reminding us how similar the macho brotherhoods of cops & criminals are, while ratcheting up the action and suspense to the blood-soaked conclusion.

But that’s where I have some concerns and questions, and which I’d like to address after the cut…

As a creator myself, I feel there is a certain compact between author and reader, and the ending of The Departed made me feel that Scorsese and writer William Monahan had broken that compact. To state that compact in its simplest terms, I think the creator is obligated to tell a story that invests the audience. In other words, we should care about what — whether it be character or situation — is at stake.

By killing DiCaprio so abruptly (and brutally), I felt Scorsese spit in the eye of the audience. Here was a character, as I said, who had tried throughout the film to do the right thing and was only punished, never rewarded, for his efforts. Then, at the end of the movie, just as he’s been screwed one more time, he finds a way to salvage some measure of self-respect. He has lured and captured his antagonist/alter-ego Matt Damon, and is going to expose the truth about him and the whole corrupt operation. But just in his moment of triumph, BOOM, a completely tertiary character steps in and blows DiCaprio’s head off! (In the most gruesome fashion, I might add.)

Jeez! OK, it’s one thing to kill off your protagonist. That’s tragedy, and I have no problem with it. I’m not looking for a typical Hollywood ending. But to do it in that fashion, so suddenly — without DiCaprio even knowing he’s about to die or having a chance to understand the truth of his fate — is when the film gives the audience the finger. And it really jumps the shark when DiCaprio’s murder is followed by not one, not two, but three, successive head-shot murders. La la la, everyone dead. And for what? It’s pure cynicism: okay, everyone’s corrupt, the system sucks. Besides being cruel, it’s lazy. Lazy writing, lazy thinking. And if that’s how we’re supposed to feel about the world the movie portrays, why should we feel any different about the movie itself?

I’d like to think that Scorsese & Monahan have more goals in mind than just pushing our buttons with tension and gratuitous violence. The last shot of the film, with a rat crossing in front of the golden dome of the State House, is a heavy-handed summation of the movie’s “themes.” But what are these themes? That everyone’s a rat, a potential turncoat? That government is composed of rats? This isn’t exactly sophisticated critical analysis. And if that’s the case, again, why should we care? If the moviemakers basically tell us that the whole fight is for nothing, that there’s nothing to fight for, it seems like the only response we can have is to forget the whole experience.

That’s surprising and disappointing to me, especially coming from the director who gave us (just to mention a few) Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Goodfellas, movies that I think tackle very complex issues of human nature.

About joshcomix
Brooklyn-based cartoonist specializing in nonfiction comics about topics like Hurricane Katrina, the media, travel, and finance.

6 Responses to Questions for THE DEPARTED

  1. rantcomics says:

    See, what I got was that the punch of the movie was you had these two concurrent stories – Damon and DiCaprio – that don’t actually face-to-face connect until the very end of the movie. Youve got your two major protagonists going about their arc oblivious to either’s parallel story until the build to intersect and then come together at the end and THEN we get an abrupt shock when we’re introduced to a third character (the mob-connected cop that shoots DiCaprio) whose story probably ran parallel to the other two but we were as oblivious to it as Damon and DiCaprio – THERE’S the point; THERE’S the shocker. This story is about hidden parallel stories, to me, if that makes sense and that’s why I dug the sudden head shots.

    • 4_eyez says:

      Well, I dig your formalist reading of the film, and appreciate it, but it still doesn’t lessen my sense of being pissed on. The parallel/alter-ego stuff seems very Chinese, very “John Woo,” and I would guess was the major element of the original Chinese version (which I never saw).
      I guess I just want more emotionally, and since i was so invested in DiCaprio’s struggle, I was very upset at the way his character was disposed of.

      • rantcomics says:

        Oh – I completely hear where you’re coming from. Laurie had the same reaction that you did and at first, so did I. We were both stunned and then angry that we had followed this character, trying to do the right thing and redeem himself for the sins of his past and then just at the pinnacle of victory it gets snatched away suddenly, abruptly and to those of us at his side, unfairly.
        But then I had a few weeks to think about that third character and came to the conclusions above… emotionally it still seems unfair but once I approach it as a writer I can understand the choices that were made.
        Not saying that either of our reactions are the right one at all – and I can appreciate why you’re pissed off – but my opinion is that I dont think either writer or director were just looking to give us gratuitious violence.

  2. man_size says:

    Hey Josh–
    I haven’t read the spoiler section of your/this post [I have yet to see THE DEPARTED] but I will say this: Scorcese adapated the story from a Chinese movie called INFERNAL AFFAIRS which came out a few years ago. I have it on DVD and loved it. I’ll lend it to you if interested. I’m curious to see the American version. I wonder how it will play out?
    Until then, I [obviously] can’t weigh in on this topic nor the rest of your reaction.
    However, I heard Farmiga is really good in THE DEPARTED. I also have on DVD a movie she was very good in called RUNNING SCARED which was another movie bordering on cartoon violence but quite effective cinematically [which you can borrow, too, if desired].

    • benchilada says:

      Ya beat me to it.
      I saw Infernal Affairs the moment it hit vaguely-bootleg DVD in the US, and now own a proper US release copy.
      I enjoyed both versions, but they’re completely different tales in their own way.
      Scorsese’s is overflowing with testosterone and manly introspection, while Andrew Lau Wai Keung (NOT the same Andy Lau as stars in the pic) follows his own personal formula, which is focusing on the people IN the violent situation to such a degree that within 90 minutes you feel like you know them.

    • 4_eyez says:

      I address the Chinese version in my response to above, but obviously you shouldn’t read that until you see the movie either! (It’s like I’m having three personal, yet public, conversations simultaneously!) But, anyway, I’d love to borrow your copy of Infernal Affairs — I’m curious if I would have the same feeling of having the creator-audience compact betrayed by that one.
      And I promise to return your DVD exactly to the spot I borrow it from.

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