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The Departed: Best Picture, 2006

thedepartedposter.jpgThe Departed was nominated for 5 Oscars at the 79th Annual Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Mark Wahlberg). It lost only the last, to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine. It is the 4th Martin Scorsese film that I have seen. I really thought Taxi Driver, an urban story of isolation and twisted virtue, was an excellent and amazing film. It was nominated for 4 Oscars and won none. Gangs of New York, a sprawling historical tale of rival Irish gangs and political corruption set against the backdrop of the Civil War, was pretty good, but perhaps overlong. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and also lost every single one. The Aviator, as I’ve mentioned recently, I disliked a great deal. A vast biopic of wealthy eccentric Howard Hughes, it was definitely overlong. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and took 5.

The Departed is the story of two men of Irish descent, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who join the Boston Police Department at around the same time and become involved in an investigation hoping to take down Irish mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costigan is recruited by Dignam (Wahlberg) and Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) to go undercover and get as close as possible to Costello. Meanwhile, Sullivan, befriended by Costello at a very young age, is busily feeding him information from inside the force. Naturally, it is only a matter of time before the two moles become aware of each other’s existence and each is forced to attempt to be the first to discover the other’s identity. Meanwhile, unbeknowst to them, they have both fallen in love with the same woman.

This is really an excellent and carefully-crafted set-up, with an equally great cast. It is truly surprising that Wahlberg was the sole acting nominee, because there is fantastic work here all around. Nicholson, as usual, is outstanding, as are both DiCaprio and Damon. In fact, I think this may be my favorite DiCaprio performance to date. I’m surprised Nicholson didn’t get a nomination for his performance. Maybe they thought, with 12 previous nominations and 3 wins behind him, why bother? Then again, Meryl Streep got nominated. In any case, I found the characters very believable and compelling, and I was very caught up in what was going on. I didn’t get bored or feel the need to check the time at all.

Of course, part of that strength lies as much with the screenplay as the performances. There is a lot to like here with the slow building of very palpable tension, several surprise twists scattered liberally throughout, and cat-and-mouse antics that are as original as I’ve seen in recent memory. The ultimate fate of the characters is unpredictable, not because the ending cheap-shots the audience out of nowhere (it doesn’t, really) but because the movie appears willing to let the story play out naturally instead of contriving a particular ending.

Nevertheless, it has its failings. They are, perhaps, not very significant alone, but together they make this film far from perfect. As great as the story is, I got the very distinct feeling as it drew to a close that the manner in which things played out would fall apart if I were to watch the movie again. A few things didn’t quite add up. I was never sure, for instance, how Costigan wound up seeing the same woman that Sullivan was dating. I’m willing to overlook the improbability of it because it added so much to the story, but it seemed much too convenient. I can’t discuss other developments in detail for fear of giving away the movie, but there were a number of inconsistencies and one or two major events that didn’t seem plausible to me. These occurred mostly in the last 20 minutes of the movie.

I’m not sure where fault for my larger complaint should lie: with the editing, the directing, or the screenplay. Perhaps it is a combination of all three. Gallagher walked in and joined us after the movie had been going for about half an hour, and he said at the end that he didn’t feel like he had missed anything. In a movie where so much depends on character development and small details, being able to miss a good 20% of the runtime with no loss to understanding seems to me to indicate self-indulgence on someone’s part. Leave more on the cutting room floor.

Actually, the movie had been playing for at least fifteen minutes already and we felt we were “in the thick of it” ourselves when suddenly the screen went black and “The Departed” flashed in front of us. Someone observed that that was one heck of an opening sequence. Waiting that long to announce the film’s title is stupid, and I can think of no good reason for it. It breaks the flow. Really, thinking back, it’s a testament to the movie’s excellence in other areas that I wasn’t more distracted throughout.

There were a number of weird, almost dreamlike breaks that cut in on the actual narrative here and there and disappeared just as quickly; things like Nicholson’s character spraying cocaine through the air while a scantily-clad hooker looked on. These brief cuts were irrelevant to whatever was going on before, were gone as quickly as they appeared, and didn’t seem to relate to anything that came after. Sloppy and surreal, a bad combination. They didn’t happen often, but they shouldn’t have happened at all.

That brings me to my final praise/complaint: the music. The music was great. It really was. The main theme was a haunting piece that came across as The Godfather with Celtic overtones, and a lot of the other music was fun Irish punk rock type stuff reminiscent of Flogging Molly. So, it sounded good and it fit very well with the mood and tone of the film. Props to the composer. But I have seldom heard music used so ineffectively and intrusively in a movie. At completely random times for no reason at all the music would fade out, grow suddenly louder, or cut off completely and abruptly (mid-note and mid-scene) for a few seconds before jumping back on at full volume. It was incredibly annoying and distracting, and I thought it was tacky and pretentious.

I would call The Departed a truly high-quality film experience that doesn’t stand up well under very close scrutiny. Gallagher wondered aloud at the end how this movie stood up against Snatch and The Boondock Saints. At first I thought he was talking about general quality or something similar . . . he was actually talking about f-bombs. I guess there were quite a few. Randy and I didn’t really notice after the first few, and I still don’t have vivid memories of there being a great many, but there were. I guess that’s a testament to how comfortable I am watching movies with everyone that was in the room (I only notice things like that if I feel like someone in the room is noticing . . . and disapproving).

Anyway, Gallagher was inspired to check, and discovered that there were 237 uses of the f-word and its various derivations. That’s approximately one every 40 seconds for two and a half hours. In case you were wondering, The Boondock Saints has 246 f-words, or one every 28 seconds or so, while Snatch weighs in with a paltry 153 for an overall concentration comparable to that of The Departed. I was quick to point out that Gallagher has never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie. Pulp Fiction has 271 (1 every 34 seconds), and Reservoir Dogs has 252 (1 every 24 seconds).

Having since investigated the matter on the internets, I find Casino with 422 (1 every 25 seconds) and Twin Town with 320 (1 every 19 seconds). Both are blown completely out of the water by Nil by Mouth with 470 (1 every 16 seconds), which (incidentally) stars the guy who plays Nicholson’s right-hand man in The Departed. I should point out, in closing, that 2005’s documentary F*ck contains an astounding 857 f-words (no, I don’t know if that is counting the title), cramming in 1 for every 7 seconds of runtime . . . but that’s not really fair. As the word is the subject of the documentary, the uses can’t be considered completely gratuitous. In any case, point taken. The Departed definitely holds the record number of f-words for a Best Picture winner, since Pulp Fiction lost to Forrest Gump in 1995. But really . . . who’s counting?


As for the other serious contender for the Best Picture award, you may have noticed that I saw Babel last week. What a powerful and aptly-named film this is. In the midst of Morocco, a goatherd buys a high-powered rifle from a friend to help rid himself of a jackal problem, and sends his young sons out to tend the flock. Playing around with the weapon, one of them shoots an American tourist (Cate Blanchette) in a passing bus. Hours from civilization, her husband (Brad Pitt) rushes her to the nearest approximation to a doctor in a local village and starts frantically phoning his embassy.

Meanwhile, the couple’s two children back in California are being cared for by their housekeeper of many years, and illegal immigrant from Mexico. Her son is going to be married back in Mexico, and with her employers’ return delayed and no one to watch the children, she takes them with her to the wedding. On the other side of the world, in Japan, the deaf/mute daughter of a wealthy businessman has just lost her mother, and is searching desperately in all the wrong places for some kind of satisfying emotional connection to another human being. The international incident in Morocco, a tragic accident that is rapidly being blown out of proportion, will have a profound impact on the lives of the characters in Mexico and Japan.

Transpiring in at least 5 languages (counting sign language) and jumping rapidly between the dirty streets of Mexico, the techno-pop Japanese night life, and the primitive desert of Morocco, Babel is like a very concentrated shot of culture shock. The film poignantly illustrates the impossibility of communication across thick barriers of language and culture, and the tragedy of this breakdown in human connection, while at the same time hinting that there may be hope for those with the humility and the sensitivity to try to build relationships. It is a message that is both timely and timeless.

Babel only won Best Music (Score) out of its seven nominations, an award I still think should have gone to Pan’s Labyrinth. However, as to the rest, I suspect that it split its own Best Supporting Actress vote, allowing Dreamgirls to walk off with it. Both Adriana Barraza (as the Mexican housekeeper) and Rinko Kikuchi (as the deaf/mute Japanese teen) did incredible work. Because of the masterful way in which it splices and weaves its four stories together into a unified whole, and jumps between them in a way that is both startling and artful, I don’t understand why Babel lost Best Editing to The Departed . . . especially considering the flaws I already pointed out in the latter.

I feel that Babel is a genuinely important film with a positive and vital message that should speak to anyone anywhere in the world. The Departed is smart and well done . . . great filmmaking, to be sure. But ultimately I think The Departed is entertainment where Babel is art. Babel is highly original and worthy of imitation . . . The Departed is imitation; a nearly identical remake of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs (2002) done over with a new location, an all-star cast and a less meaningful ending. What does that say about where Best Picture and Best Director should have gone? Well . . . there it is.

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~ by Jared on March 7, 2007.

2 Responses to “The Departed: Best Picture, 2006”

  1. interestingly, this movie is strikingly similar to the Chinese/Hong Kong? movie Infernal Affairs. So not too original in screenplay and plot development, but still a good movie!

  2. Oh, yeah. I mentioned that “beneath the fold” (click on “Continue reading ‘<i>The Departed</i> . . .'” <i>The Departed</i> won Best Adapted Screenplay . . . having adapted its screenplay from <i>Infernal Affairs</i>.

    I saw some snarky critic noting that this year’s Best Foreign Film (<i>The Live of Others</i>) is being remade: http://movies.yahoo.com/mv/news/va/20070301/117274659600.html “I wonder if it’ll qualify for Best Picture at an upcoming Oscar ceremony, now that <i>Americans</i> are making it,” he deadpanned.

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