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Zettel Film Reviews » The Departed – Nicholson’s Existential villain

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The Departed – Nicholson’s Existential villain

The 'Nicholson' effect

The 'Nicholson' effect

The Departed – Martin Scorcese

Camus places ‘absurd’ man at the heart of an implacably indifferent universe that is Godless, meaningless, purposeless. Without bad faith or consoling self-deception, absurd man makes a definitive existential decision: against all the evidence and the urging of reason, he decides against suicide. Absurdity resides in his deciding to create meaning where none exists. Gangster boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson – rampant) opens Scorcese’s movie thus “I don’t want to be a product of my envi-on-ment – I want my envi-on-ment to be a product of me.” Later, a gangster replies when Frank asks after his sick wife, “she’s on her way out”. Without a shred of emotion or a break in his step, Nicholson savours his reply “we all are – act accordingly.” Scorcese has created in his films a series of chilling characters revealing the downside of Camus’ existentialist philosophy: in a world with no rules or values, there is no constraint on the kind of meaning we choose to create. Scorcese’s ‘heroes’ choose to kill others rather than themselves.

The gangster has long fascinated, especially French directors, as an existential figure. He embraces death without fear or compunction. He concedes nothing to the law or social mores. He chooses to place himself outside any conventional constraints that limit his freedom of action. The price he pays is a constant readiness to kill and to risk being killed.

If illicit profit is Frank Costello’s objective, power is his drive. The power over others. A power that is his by right because only he possesses the will to seize it and keep it by being utterly ruthless without a moment’s compunction. Frank Costello, like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) before him, is a Nazi without a Reich.

The Departed is a re-make of the very successful Hong Kong thriller Internal Affairs (Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fia Mak – 2002). Gangster boss Costello funds a young man Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) through the police academy to set him up as a mole within the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) that is dedicated to bringing him down. In turn, the SIU headed up by Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) and deputy Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), themselves recruit a rebellious young cop Billy Costigan (De Caprio) with family criminal connections and raised on the very streets Costello rules with a rod of iron. They set up a legend for Billy – drop out cop, busted and jailed for GBH. Then use him undercover to infiltrate Costello’s gang. Both sides being fed inside information sets up a cat and mouse game which Scorcese uses well to keep up us guessing and taut with suspense.

The Departed may be the first full-on cell phone thriller. Both moles betray by text. This increasingly crucial plot device in movies has never been used to better effect. All this gets fearsomely complicated at certain points but don’t worry, the key plot device is pretty straightforward and Scorcese if anything over-emphasises to make sure we get it.

Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), Harvard-bright shrink whose commitment to public service makes her a duty-stress consultant to the cops and counsellor to ex-prisoners, provides love interest. Sullivan charms her into his bed and Billy turns her on with his vulnerability. No deception here – anyone working under cover to bring down a cunning psychopath like Frank, doesn’t have to fake vulnerability. This all plays out well enough to justify the claims in the reviews of ‘Scorcese’s return to form’. He is a master of editing with a precise, visceral rhythm. Unlike lesser directors, Scorcese builds tension then releases it to build yet again. The editing breathes like a fugitive on the run – long heart-pounding sequences then quiet catch-your-breath interludes. Then we’re off again. The pace rattles along well enough to hide any gaps in the plot and the denouement has a macabre symmetry that must have attracted Scorcese to the re-make in the first place.

That said, I prefer the original. Scorcese’s film is too clearly a star vehicle. It suffers from what is becoming a phenomenon – what we might call the ‘Jack-effect’. Nicholson is beginning to overwhelm every movie he’s in – never more so than here. Nobody does Jack better than Jack but here Frank gets lost. And that makes everyone else try to raise their game to get noticed. At the expense of character. De Caprio and Damon in their different ways – the one with a lot of tough cheek twitching and lip-pursing, the other over-delivering lines – both struggle for our attention, especially in scenes with Nicholson-rampant. This shows most when the non-grand-standing style of that fine actor Martin Sheen, makes his Captain Queenan seem pale in comparsion. A bit like the guy in the argument who knows the answers but can’t get heard over the noise of those who don’t. (In Internal Affairs the Queenan character is a dominant figure). Ray Winstone (Mr French) does well in scenes without Nicholson but is reduced to a kind of bemused menacing immobility when Jack’s letting rip. The ‘Jack-effect’ even seems to infect the script. Great lines like those above are too rare, tellingly both Nicholson lines. William Monahan’s script in sheer desperation to get other characters noticed indulges in what one might call a bad case of ‘f***ing’ overkill. This isn’t a new problem for Scorcese as De Niro was beginning to unbalance his earlier films too.

Scorcese bugs me as a director. All that talent seems to have been, with honourable exceptions like the superb Age of Innocence, squandered on an obsession with a brutal, bloody, grotesque kind of macho group solidarity with Catholic undertones. What we might call ‘esprit de corpse’. Scorcese for me makes the best nasty movies in town. Goodfellas is I think a brilliant, hateful film. And I don’t just mean its subject. I mean its directorial perspective. I have taken a philosophical approach to The Departed. If one took a more psychoanalytical approach to this and others in the extensive Scorcese gangster canon, I think much deeper issues would emerge. Scorcese’s directorial perspective has echoes for me of a sort of revenge of the bullied. And even more disturbingly, an aesthetic form that expresses not just a sneaking admiration for the power of the bully, but a subtle, reluctant, but very real, desire to share that power. I find the reasons why very large numbers of men like Scorcese’s movies so much very unsettling. Wittingly or unwittingly I think he is plugged in to something very dark that we, and perhaps he, might not like to see in the full light of day.

But a master of his craft Scorcese clearly is and The Departure fully reflects all his many skills. But if I were to be very rude and harking back to my concerns above, if women have their chick-flicks (which is an expression I hate), one might be tempted to call this a dick-flick. I don’t see many couples coming out of the cinema with the same feelings about this one.

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