not in our stars, but in ourselves
Since I am back in Boston, I thought I’d return to proper posting with Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006). It’s a good little flick. But. We’ll get to that “but” in a moment.
Based on Infernal Affairs (2002), a Hong Kong crime film, and based as well on the infamous Whitey Bolger, The Departed transplants the action to Boston – mostly South Boston. Once upon a time, it was a fairly rough-and-tumble part of town. Now it’s about as gentrified as you can get, but let’s just pretend that it doesn’t look like this now.
Here, we have Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) as the poisonous head of a small but deadly crime syndicate. He grooms Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) to be his rat within the Massachusetts State Police. Police Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen), meanwhile, plants Billy Costigan (Leonardo Di Caprio) within Costello’s organization as an undercover agent. Costello and Queenan both realize that their operations are compromised, and set each of their deputies to find the rat from the other side. Sullivan and Costigan also find themselves attracted to Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), a psychiatrist who often works with police and criminals who’ve fallen into the deep end. Sullivan dates her openly and invites her to move into his apartment; Costigan follows her around and gazes longingly. Sometimes she obliges him by making out, or even letting him round the bases. Anyway. There’s lots of bloodshed and male angst, as usual in Scorsese films.
The sensibility of the film – the very plot and main themes – is discernibly that of an Asian crime film rather than an American one. Not that I’ve seen a hell of a lot of the former, but the very intricacy and parallelism is something that Hollywood gangster films usually don’t bother with (unless they’re The Wire, of course). The translated title of the original Hong Kong film is The Unceasing Path – which Wikipedia helpfully informs me is a reference to the lowest level of Hell in Buddhism; The Departed creates its own low-level hell in the dully mutual beneficial corruption of the mob and the police. The path never ceases: one side always needs the other for its survival. Cops need criminals, criminals find it very helpful to use cops. On and on it goes. It’s not often that Scorsese focuses on institutional corruption – corrupted souls are more usually his territory – so The Departed‘s Asian roots show quite clearly.
That’s all fine. I have no problem with that. However, as a native Bostonian, I must say this: Scorsese is working with excellent source material and an excellent adaptation thereof, but he understands Boston and the Irish about as well as I understand Marcus Garvey and the Back to Africa movement. While Damon and Mark Wahlberg are born-and-bred Massholes, the rest of the cast is, shall we say, imported from elsewhere. Maybe I’m too sensitive on this particular issue, but Hollywood seems to have a very difficult time finding actors who can play Boston right. Nicholson and Farmiga’s accents seem to have been borrowed from SNL‘s Sully and Denise sketch. Di Caprio drops his Rs every now and again – with intention, I think. I think that’s supposed to be part of the character. (And as an aside, this is actually one of the best roles Di Caprio has ever done. Pity he was also in the white savior’s delight, Blood Diamond, that same year and was nominated for an Academy Award for that instead. He’s been sobbing his way through every other film ever since, trying to get that Oscar, when maybe he would have had a better shot at it if he’d just been nominated for this instead. Oh, well.)
Wait, where was I? Right – Scorsese should stick to New York and Italians. I haven’t seen every Scorsese film out there, but I’ve seen enough to tell you that he gets it completely right in Taxi Driver (1977) and Raging Bull (1980). He is only sometimes successful when he ventures out of either of those comfort zones: while The Departed is, despite my quibbles, still pretty good, I would categorize The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Shutter Island (2010) and Hugo (2011) as misfires. And I think that the little things about The Departed that irk me are the combination of Hollywood’s usual inability to convincingly portray Boston onscreen, and Scorsese’s own strengths as a director not lining up with the thematic elements here.
However, it’s still a good flick, like I said. It’s well worth seeing. Just remember this piece of expert shade from John Adams in 1775: “Philadelphia, with all its trade and wealth and regularity, is not Boston. Our language is better, our taste is better, our persons are handsomer; our spirit is greater, our laws are wiser, our religion is superior, our education is better. We exceed them in everything.” Goddamn right.