Read more than a handful of the glowing reviews for Scorsese’s latest and you may detect — beneath the rote praise for Thelma Schoonmaker’s slightly uncertain editing, the justified plaudits for what DiCaprio’s doing, and a whole load of starstruck raving about one of the least disciplined performances of Jack Nicholson’s career — a heavy sigh of relief. He’s pulled it off, is the implication: the movie’s no masterpiece, but it works.
Think about that for a second. Which other great American director has reached a point in his career where we’re this damn grateful for a half-decent movie? Who else labours for two years or more, from script to shoot to famously arduous post-production, on a piece of cinema whose unveiling isn’t the cause for celebration but its very opposite — apprehension? Scorsese is personally complicit, of course, in the prickly air of worry that now seems to hang over every Scorsese project. He guards his secrets like a paranoid magician: only the most trusted and friendly of journalists is allowed access to his sets. And he’s constantly described as “wary” about his films’ reception, stung so often in the past by even minor criticisms of his best work, continually a disappointment to his studios, pipped to that Best Director Oscar by idiots. Actors! Who wouldn’t get butterflies?
The real problem arises when the movies themselves seem nervous. The Departed, for me, isn’t decent but exactly half-decent — about half the film it should be, which is an odd thing to say about a picture that feels 30 minutes too long as it is. The structure isn’t there and the movie’s a shouty scrummage, albeit an often pretty entertaining one, of big scenes, flashy riffs and see-what-sticks showboating. It doesn’t quite know how to contain itself or many of its core elements — certainly not Nicholson, who barges in right from the start and upsets, not subtly, but with shoulder-blows, the yin-yang symmetry this plot is crying out for. There just isn’t room in the movie for three lead performances and Matt Damon, who’s perfectly promising in a blunt sort of way, traipses out of the saloon door with his tail between his legs.
Then there’s the half of the movie that works a treat, which is almost every scene Leo gets that isn’t opposite Jack, all the stuff with Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Ray Winstone, and a surprising amount of the love-triangle subplot (see what I mean about scrummage?) in which Vera Farmiga acts the hell out of a nothing role. The truth is that Infernal Affairs was just as patchy and nearly as wasteful of its terrific genre conceit. Instead of cat-and-mouse intrigue — we want these guys to have each other’s number, early on, and each to be working at full tilt to outwit and dislodge the other — both movies give us straggly threads of subplot that go nowhere, and tie things up in frankly desperate fashion with the intervention of third-tier characters whose corruption (meant, sure, to be emblematic of a wholesale, institutional rottenness) is in narrative terms a shrug and a cop-out. I can think of so many cleverer, more grabby, and more subversive ways that this plot could have been worked out: it was begging for a top-to-tail restructuring, not just a relocation to Boston, a locale neither Scorsese nor most of his cast nor screenwriter William Monahan (who was actually born there) nor even great d.p. Michael Ballhaus (if we compare, say, Tom Stern’s work on the otherwise iffy Mystic River) ever seem fully comfortable in.
What I mean by nervous is that I think The Departed risks being a self-conscious recycling of pet Scorsese tropes, one that keeps looking over its own shoulder and courting approval like some kind of ageing jester. That guitar intro to “Gimme Shelter” again, for instance? And it comes particularly unstuck in the trotting out of needlessly thuggish set-pieces that break free of all psychological credibility in their attempt to gain the blackly comic edge of Mean Streets, Goodfellas and the massively underrated Casino. Not even the hard-working DiCaprio can sell his character’s ability to go tactically apeshit in a bar here: it’s just Scorsese giving us what he thinks we want. Ditto the unrelenting and exhausting stream of homophobic abuse. Pauline Kael said Goodfellas was about “being a guy and getting high on being a guy”; The Departed is about not being a faggot and getting high on calling other guys faggots. Is this authentic Boston man-speak? I don’t care. They’re all enjoying it too much. C+