Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Scenes #6: The Departed: The Gospel According To Frank

People never want to give The Departed the credit it deserves. It's too easy to dismiss as Scorsese doing Scorsese, or just a gangster film. Scorsese himself has called it a B film, saying it was his tribute to the likes of Sam Fuller and Robert Aldrich.

At the core of these complaints is the fact that The Departed is just so entertaining (along with The Dark Knight it surely has to be one of the quickest 2 and a half hour+ films ever made). Something this fun to watch can't be good for you. Yet The Departed like any Scorsese is so full of detail that thorough study is rewarded.

Scorsese films are always anchored in time and environment. Scorsese has always been among the most sensual filmmakers to ever pick up a camera. Not in the usual sexual connotation that the term usually implies, but the sheer tactile quality of his films.

The first thing we see is an outbreak of Scorsesian violence. For a director whose name is often synonymous with violent content people neglect to mention how ungainly and clumsy violence always appears in a Scorsese film. It's never a glamorous or graceful thing.

“I don’t want to be a product of My Environment. I want my Environment to be a product of me.”
We hear Frank Costello before we see him. With Nicholson's trademark dulcet purr filling the soundtrack over the images of chaos. Costello's environment is a product of himself. He's not merely a figure of greed or corruption the way Scorsese's other gangsters have been. Instead he is a literal Mephistophelean figure and in this opening scene we see him offering what's literally a counter Gospel. Costello is not a additive figure, he "Hasn't needed the money since he took Archies Milk money in the third grade." There is no joy in material goods for him. He is simply a figure of negation.
We can only imagine that he would look at such images of chaos and violence with immense satisfaction.

The Busing Riots are obscure enough to barely be considered a footnote in American history. Similar to The Draft Riots, another forgotten moment of racially motivated mass violence, that Scorsese used to climax Gangs Of New York. Judging by the American flag waved by some next generation Bill or Vallon, not much has changed between the two ugly outbursts of American anarchy.

“Years ago we had the church, which was just another way of saying we had each other.” More on this later.

It is not so much that Scorsese movies resemble real life as real life has the damnable habit of resembling a Scorsese movie.

"It's a funny thing. It'll put hate in your heart."

In an allusion to Hawk's Scarface, Scorsese places an X in the frame whenever someone is about to die. This is the one time that an X doesn't immediately result in Death, but it's placement at the beginning of the film is significant. Many missed the significance of the film's title, thanks to the relative antiquity of the term. This is Scorsese underlining it, The Departed is a film full of dead people, before the action even starts everyone is doomed.

And to underline things even further the first time we see him he's delivering a eulogy. “Twenty years after an Irishman could get a job we had the presidency. May he rest in peace.” Delivered with a puff of Satanic smoke drifting from his nostrils this has to be one of the juiciest lines Nicholson gets in the film.
Note too the way the smoke juxtaposes with the incense that appears in the church during Colin's visit there.

I love this POV shot. Costello enters into this poor bastard's shop like the force in Evil Dead.

Twenty five bucks once again the paltryness of the money. A great deal more in seventies dollars to be sure. But nothing like the wads his gangsters flash in Goodfellas, Casino, or even Mean Streets.

But Costello's not quite done. From the very beginning of the movie Nicholson plays him like a sexual threat as well as a physical one...

His gaze rests on the owner's young daughter. But note that Colin is caught in the same gaze as well. I've read some critics theorize that Costello is molesting Colin. While I don't think you can quite say it's in the text. There certainly is a lot to support it, including Colin's later sexual disfunction with his fiance and the fact that Costello is drawn as parallel to The Church (Also you know, the scene where Costello waves a giant dildo in his face at a porno theater. Subtle stuff like that.)

Costello starts talking, we get initial repulsion...

Plus this crucial insert of the impotent Father. Underlying sexuality as a punishing force...

And from repulsion to attraction.

Point made Costello turns on a new target for corruption.

Poor kid never had a chance.

There is perhaps no director better than Scorsese at capturing the seductive, spiritual corrupting pull of material wealth. I’ve already written about my issue with those who downplay this element with Goodfellas, but in The Departed the rewards are deliberately meager. The wages of sin are in this case so paltry as to almost be a sick joke (This doesn’t change with age either, at one point an exasperated DiCaprio tells Costello that he runs “a feudal system”), Colin Sullivan sells his soul for a sack or two of groceries, a handful of change and a couple of comic books.

There's a jumpcut here as if Scorsese wants to emphasize the supernatural speed with which Colin's fate is sealed.

Smoke with smoke. The Departed is an odd movie from Scorsese at this time. It follows almost immediately two of Scorsese's most Catholic movies. Gangs Of New York, where there is hardly a scene where Catholicism isn't the main subject and Bringing Out The Dead, which is Scorsese's most overtly religious film since The Last Temptation Of Christ.

The Departed on the other hand, with the exception of Martin Sheen ("What are we following Queenan around for? To Learn about The Good Catholic Life?") is a very cynical movie in terms of religion. Some of this might be explained by William Monahan, who tends to take a much darker view of religion then Scorsese. More of it can be explained by the film's Boston setting which was the flash point for the Priest scandals in America.

The Departed is a film about deep wounds and the deepest of all come from those we trust.

We're not even outside of the church when Costello, interrupts The Priest and begins his litany. "The Church wants you in your place. Stand, Kneel, Sit." Like Henry Hill what seduces Colin is the power of self determination in a world of working class humps. The terrible irony is that Colin is perhaps the Scorsese character with the least control over his fate.

"Nom Serviam" cements Costello's Satanic identification. Colin rightly identifies the passage as one of Joyce's. But forgets to add that it is taken from Joyce's Potrait Of An Artist As A Young Man. In which, Father Arnall tells Dedalus, that "Nom Serviam" is the personal motto of Satan.

Oh and to strengthen the allusion one more time here's a picture of Costello with his face framed with fire.

Scorsese has always had a skill with violence but rarely has he been so meticulous in its minutia. Note that muzzle flash hits and then the squib. Both split second images painstakingly composed.

"When you're facing a loaded gun. What's the difference?" Thus endeth the sermon. Draft Riots, or busing riots, Guinea's or Micks, Church or Streets, Cops or Criminals, Nicholson nihlistically denies the distinctions of all. Nothing can be quantified but self gratification, and if you can use those illusions to distract the suckers so much the better.



Who’s That Knocking At My Door
Boxcar Bertha
Mean Streets
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Taxi Driver
New York New York
The Last Waltz
Raging Bull
The King Of Comedy
After Hours
The Color Of Money
The Last Temptation Of Christ
New York Stories
Cape Fear
The Age Of Innocence
A Personal Journey Through American Movies With Martin Scorsese
My Voyage To Italy
Bringing Out The Dead
Gangs Of New York
The Blues: Feels Like Going Home
The Aviator
No Direction Home
The Departed
Shine A Light
Shutter Island
Boardwalk Empire
A Letter To Elia
Public Speaking (Pending DVD Release)
Living In The Material World (Pending DVD Release)


Ryan McNeil said...

One of my very favorite films from the last decade, and that broken opening monologue is a massive part of it.

However, there is sadly, the one drawback...

...I wish he hadn't used "Gimme Shelter" for the fourth time.

GREAT post!!

Simon said...

Frank was always the creepiest character to me. Not scary, not crazy, not even greedy, just creepy. Like he started out by letting his boner lead the way.

Or whatever.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Mad Hatter: Yeah, true he could have chosen a different song. But It works awful well, and hearing Gimme Shelter in a Scorsese song is like getting a comfort blanket at this point.

@ Simon: I agree, he's very corrupt. And not really "cool" in the traditional sense. Lots of people want to be Robert De Niro in Goodfellas, or Tony Montana. Lots of stupid people even want to be Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.

I don't think anyone idolizes Frank Costello.

BRENT said...

Like The Mad Hatter I think this definitly one of the best films of the last decade. It is certainly one of the most memorable films I've seen and hence an all time favorite.
I'm not overly keen on Jack Nicholson but here he outdone himself. Scorsese is one of those directors than can bring so much out of the actors he uses.
Di Caprio and him together equates to a very good film.

Anonymous said...

Love the analysis, but I disagree completely with the theory that Frank molested Collin. Unless you took a bathroom break during the scene where Frank confronts the priests at the restaurant about child molestation and their rationale for it (I am as God made me), I think it's pretty obvious that Frank is not a proponent of it.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, even if you buy into the "art" of the shots, I can't find myself caring for most of the characters of this movie. Most of them can't die fast enough, IMO. Lots of the "action" is so corny, like Frenchie shooting himself in the burning car, epithet on his dying lips. The recycled music. I fast forwarded in some places just to get this over with.

Examples like the shop keeper's young daughter. The idea that she'd be attracted to this worthless piece of garbage old fart only shows that she's a brainless whore. Like I care about a bunch of losers? Hell, the whole Boston police shown are a bunch of creeps. Kill them all, nary a normal person in the bunch. Maybe the captain.

Also lots of plot holes, but I don't need to go into that. Suffice to say, I've seen better written 1 hour episodic television.

Each to his own, but this is a tired movie and I honestly think people are reading "art" into it that wasn't intended.

Anonymous said...

hey, anonymous... I'm gonna guess and say that you're probably around 14 or 15 years old right? either that or you haven't even graduated from high school.. because you clearly have no idea what you are even talking about, especially when you mentioned "plot holes," because there are... none.. in the entire movie lmfao, by the end and all the way through, everything is very tight knit and clean... if you got lost somehow you probably just walked away from the movie for 30 minutes or just played in your phone the whole time.. lmfao.

Anonymous said...

I love this movie for pure entertainment value and the skill of Scorsese is in top form, but to say this movie has no plot holes is pretty ridiculous. Frank let's Billy onto his crew after knowing he was in the police academy but then later on realizes there's a rat in the group. Are we supposed to buy the fact that Frank is too dumb to put it together? Oh I guess he figures hitting someone's broken hand with a shoe on a pool table always gets people to tell the truth. And what's with the doctor character? you don't have to do much to bang her. Either be a cocky, obnoxious prick in an elevator or yell at her and have a freak out in her office and she's yours. I half expected she'd be banging the entire police force and every wannabe thug in Boston by the end of the movie. The love triangle was an odd plot development but maybe Scorsese is trying to illustrate the commonalities of the Colin and Billy characters, just mirror images of each other and in love with the same woman.

Anonymous said...

Liked the movie, but thought Jack Nicholson was wrongly cast. Matt Damon was okay, but how good would it have been with Jake Gyllenhaal or someone with more acting chops. The rest were great.