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.