Editor’s Note: Last night was the 88th Academy Awards ceremony: a night that saw Leonardo DiCaprio awarded with his long-awaited first “Best Actor” statue for Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, while the rest of the world mourned the death of the longstanding Internet meme about how he still didn’t (and probably never would) have an Oscar. I didn’t write anything about Oscar movies this year, because I: a.) only saw a couple of them, and b.) don’t really care about the Oscars. But I was reminded of a piece I wrote around this time in 2007 about The Departed: one of the many earlier films for which Leo was nominated and lost, and the film for which director Martin Scorsese finally got his own first Academy Award after six previous losses. I figured now was as good a time as any to post it. So join me, as we travel a decade back in time, to when DiCaprio still had to practice his good-sport face while internally screaming, and Hollywood could still make thinly-veiled movies about Whitey Bulger without turning Johnny Depp into something out of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Truly, it was a more innocent time. – Z.H.
It’s a well-known, if only tacitly acknowledged fact that beneath every tough-as-nails, big-talking, machismo-oozing gangster flick is a Freudian saga of sublimated sexuality, Oedipal crises and castration anxiety, just begging to come out. The brilliant thing about The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s remake of the 2002 Hong Kong action juggernaut Infernal Affairs, is that it turns that subtext into its text. So, yes, in telling the parallel and intersecting stories of two undercover “rats”–one spying on an Irish mob boss for the Massachusetts State Police, one spying on the “Staties” for the mobsters–The Departed is at surface level what All Movie Guide calls a “tale of questionable loyalties and blurring identities.” But scratch the surface even the slightest bit, and what you’ll find is a movie about male repression, pure and simple.
Of course, that interpretation might come as a bitter pill for more literally inclined fans of Scorsese’s brand of macho cops’n’crooks epics to swallow–because if nothing else, The Departed is a return to the Martin Scorsese of Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and Mean Streets (1973), a side of the director whose “comeback” they’ve been awaiting since the beginning of his half-decade detour into documentary (The Blues, 2003, and No Direction Home, 2005), historical fiction (Gangs of New York, 2002) and prestige “Old Hollywood” biography (The Aviator, 2004). But Scorsese’s latest opus exudes a psychosexual self-consciousness (not to mention a thoroughly projected self-confidence) which none of those earlier films possessed. Its tale of two men infiltrating the classic mirror-image institutions of patriarchal law–the police force and the crime underworld–teems with repressed drives, tensions, and the affected bluster of masculinity. The undercover cop, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), pops pills to deal with the strain of pretending to be someone he’s not; the mob informer, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), can’t get it up. Even the apparently sexually prodigious, 70-year-old mob boss himself (Jack Nicholson, who in one presumably self-directed scene has a hooker snort coke off another one’s ass during a threesome), is later revealed to be shooting blanks.
Is it any wonder that the one female character worth mentioning, played by relative newcomer Vera Farmiga (Breaking and Entering, 2006), is a female psychiatrist who tries to get both Billy and Colin to open up about their feelings–and does so only by sleeping with them? Or that Nicholson’s Frank Costello, surely his most eccentric and prototypically “Jack” character in years, seems to conceive of his crime syndicate at least in part as an Oedipal war against the symbolic “Father” of the Irish Catholic Church? Or, while we’re on the subject of Oedipus, that Costello’s relationship with Colin is like that of father and son? I would also mention the scene in which Costello meets his son-figure in a porno theatre (that traditional enclave of anonymous masculine desires and sublimated sexuality), feigns masturbation in the seat in front of him, then whirls around and whips a huge, black dildo out of his trenchcoat, but I think that proverbial dead horse has already been beaten.
Admittedly, this being Oscar season, any talk of The Departed would be lacking (oops, Freud again) without at least a little speculation about whether Scorsese will be coming home with that long-denied statue; so, for the time being, I’ll let my psychoanalysis rest. The fact is, while The Departed is a hell of an entertaining movie (and not just for the reasons enumerated above)–even a virtuosic one, a testament to its director’s long-honed skills as a craftsman–its return to the themes and situations of Scorsese’s “classic work” does not necessarily make it of the same caliber. If Scorsese wins this year, it will only be because the Academy knows his time to win has long passed.
Where the film most excels, instead, is in its lead performances: DiCaprio’s Costigan, while lacking the element of surprise that made his Aviator performance so striking (“wait, that Titanic kid can actually act?”), is convincing both as a cocky hood and as an actor rapidly deteriorating into his role. Nicholson, though drawing as much criticism as begrudging praise for his over-the-top Costello, goes so over-the-top he comes back under again; he towers over the rest of the cast in presence alone, and for children of Tim Burton‘s 1989 Batman like myself, it’s magnetizing to watch. Damon is charming as usual, but his performance, for me, is most commendable in the sense that it adds up to one big phallic symbol: Colin’s posture, giving the appearance of a man in uniform whether he’s dressed in policeman blue, business attire or just boxers and a T-shirt, is as erect as his member is not, as false as his perpetually assumed identity. As for the Oscar-nominated Mark Wahlberg, his performance is all bravado and no depth, his Best Supporting Actor nod explicable only if the Academy just couldn’t resist playing the scene where Martin Sheen says “you’re rising fast” and he says “like a 12-year-old’s dick” at the awards ceremony.
In the end, The Departed, like most good films, is what you make of it. If you’re one of those folks who eagerly awaited Scorsese’s return to the crime drama, you’ll probably love it. If you just can’t get past the fact that one of the central characters here twitches like an overstuffed rat and brandishes a gigantic strap-on, you might hate it. But if you take the
dick jokes and the Freudian commentary not as distractions to the plot, but as the very texture and fabric of the film’s commentary, it’s a whole different movie–and a more interesting one at that.
You can buy The Departed on Amazon.