Monday, February 05, 2007

The Oscar 5: 'The Departed'

My first cinema experience of a Scorcese movie was ‘Bringing out the Dead’. As ever reviews and commentary harked backed to Scorceses’ glory days. ‘Bringing out the Dead’, a brooding, reflective piece following Nicholas Cage’s loner, New York based ambulance driver inevitably drew comparison with ‘Taxi Driver’. I was impressed with the movie though the reviews were largely negative with the consensus that the movie couldn’t hold a candle to ‘Taxi Driver’, the ultimate benchmark in angsty dysfunction. I delved into Scorceses’ back catalogue from there on and discovering the reverance surrounding the man and was continually disappointed with his recent output. With ‘The Departed’ Scorcese has won back many bygone plaudits, with agreement that returning to familiar ground, the observational thriller, filtered with violence and ideas of loyalty and redemption had worked well.

This is true but there is also the important fact that Scorcese is an eclectic director and has proven himself ably in comedy (‘The King of Comedy’), all ranges of drama (‘The Age of Innocence’, ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’) and even edited ‘Woodstock’. So a return to a ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘Mean Streets’ type set up doesn’t automatically turn up quality. The issue here is he has excellent source material and surrounded himself with quality cast and crew to truly deliver a reminder of his best work. ‘The Departed’ is actually a very simple but classic three-structure tale; (1) establishing the character’s situation, (2) elements spiral out of control isolating the hero and (3) the resolution. Importantly, Scorcese playing with this tried template, ladens the substance of the film with his unique dynamism, thrilling even to those who will have seen the original ‘Internal Affairs’. A world away from sporadic segments of a life to deliver a bio-pic or getting lost in the theatrics of an epic the story touches on key fundamentals. Instilling ideas of rivalry, commitment and honesty the film delivers a master-class on cinematic building blocks. The movie creates a true sense of tension, doing the almost impossible nowadays by delivering genuine shocks, constructing an ensemble of rounded characters and of course punctuating the body of the film with humour.

There is some qualification though. I firmly believe ‘The Twist’ is overrated, it can alienate or insult the audience, negating the pleasure of what went before. I believe much more can be achieved by letting the audience in on what the characters are unaware of. Films created purely for the purpose of a twist with no logical construction negate any sense of story development. ‘The Sixth Sense’ worked well, presenting hints for those who cared to see them, however movies such as ‘The Prestige’ and ‘The Illusionist’ seem to begin with an end point and the other 1 hr 55 minutes and after effect suffer.

‘The Departed’ is somewhat guilty of this, though for the bulk of its running time the audience is one of very few who are let in on the secrets tying the characters together and gripped to see how the web of lies and double-crossing will unfurl. There is however an unsatisfactory pay-off. We’ve committed to these characters and to see secondary characters make moves that change the path of the film at the expense of a final confrontation and resolution can only leave the audience feeling cheated I feel. As ever art is subjective and this may never have been an issue when you saw it, or as is the case with me, there was too much enjoyment on screen throughout the film for this to be fatal.

So overall, the film is resoundly powerful, with a soundtrack of glorious music perfectly suited to the rhythm of each scene. I still remember when watching ‘Bringing out the Dead’ a sequence with Patricia Arquette descending a stairs and how it blurred seamlessly into her opening a door. It was so subtle but struck me for turning this otherwise unremarkable event into a striking little moment. The look too of ‘The Departed’ is unremarkable but is filled with quite moments of style that gel perfectly into the pace of the movie. Talking with a friend about this project of reviewing each of the Best Picture nominees he raised the valid point that ‘The Departed’ may have faded into the cinematic abyss of my mind having seen it a while back now. Once I began writing though I found plenty to adulate and re-appreciated the film all over again and this is worthy praise of a film in itself.

1 comment:

phdbird said...

I agree with you that the pay-off was unsatisfactory. I left 'The Departed' with the strange feeling of disliking the closing of the film, but still absorbed by what went before. I think the performances of the leads are a huge part of what makes this film memorable - the tension in the scene where Matt Damon's character phones Leonardo DiCaprio's on a dead man's phone is incredible.