I haven’t done the math, but I’d confidently wager that there’s no other director about whom I’ve written more often and more enthusiastically than Martin Scorsese. The movie review radio program I co-hosted and co-produced debuted in the fall of 1990, meaning we covered Goodfellas within our first few shows. There were times that it seemed I said the title of that movies more often than I spoke my own name during the first year of the show. On the occasion of Scorsese’s latest, Silence, going into wider release this weekend, here’s the first of his films that I wrote on after reviving my practice of slinging my opinions around in jumbles of words. This originally appeared at my former digital home.
Real hardcore movie geeks rejoiced at the news that Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson were finally working together. The preeminent director and actor from the great grungy heyday of late-1960’s-to-early-1980’s American cinema had probably exchanged handshakes at plenty of award ceremonies, but they had never found themselves on opposite sides of the camera on the same project, in no small part because all the roles that might have interested Nicholson were reserved for Bobby De Niro. With that storied director-actor partnership seemingly on permanent hiatus (excluding his recent documentary work from the count, Scorsese has now made five films over the past eleven years without De Niro, the longest stretch without a collaboration since Mean Streets), there’s suddenly a place for Jack on the call sheet.
For all that anticipation, there’s nothing especially momentous about Nicholson’s work here. He’s very good, to be sure, but Scorsese doesn’t pull anything new or startling out of him, as directors like Sean Penn and Alexander Payne have managed in recent years. Instead, as Boston mob boss Frank Costello, Jack Nicholson gives about the performance a seasoned moviegoer expects from him, although when you’re talking about a talent as prodigious as that of Mr. Three-Time-Oscar-Winner, there are still abundant rewards in witnessing the familiar.
That soft caveat is the only thing even close to a reservation that can be voiced about Martin Scorsese’s new film The Departed. In fact, Nicholson’s performance is one of the only parts of this remarkable film that doesn’t demand breathless hyperbole. The film is that good.
A remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, this new effort features a byzantine plot that I wouldn’t want to take a crack at recounting even if I weren’t already averse to story recaps. Besides, sorting through the curlicues of the story is a significant part of the fun. I’m not sure that Scorsese has ever spun this many plates in one of his films, and I’m quite certain than this represents a new peak in sheer exuberance for his material. After toiling away on Oscar-friendly projects that were blithely ignored by the powers-that-give-out-awards despite their accessible excellence, Scorsese tears into this project with the same ferocious ingenuity and fearless narrative spelunking that marks his very best work. He infuses the film with the same sort of undercurrent of devilish playfulness that shows up in Alfred Hitchcock’s most enduring films (he even throws in an out-of-left-field visual quoting of The Master at one point), resulting in something that is preposterously entertaining.
It is also violent, vicious and relentlessly profane. It is uncompromising and startling. In pushing the film to the brink, Scorsese deeply understands something that is utterly lost on the breed of directors that believes dropping in sudden violence is a short-cut to arty edginess. Scorsese understands that truly powerful filmmaking is achieved when character development is first and foremost. Only then will there be any real emotional impact achieved through adding elements that will start the MPAA ratings board hyperventilating. Bullets fly fast and free in The Departed and each one strikes the pysche as assuredly as it rattles the surround-sound.
Scorsese enlists a league of exemplary co-conspirators. This begins with the raggedly ripping screenplay by William Monahan and includes a list of vital performances, ranging from juicy supporting turns by Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen (as good as he’s even been) to wonderful work at the fringes from David O’Hara and Goodfellas vet Kevin Corrigan. Matt Damon exploits his naturally-emanating stolid citizenship to great effect, and Vera Farmiga is commanding in a role that could have easily gotten lost amidst the cracked heads and butch banter. She’s so strong and securely at home, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see her turn into the first actress to become a Scorsese regular. Best of all is Leonardo DiCaprio, proving once and for all why he’s Scorsese’s “new De Niro.” DiCaprio finds his character’s anxiety, anger and neediness and then cuts deep. In a film full of raw elements, DiCaprio’s performance is the rawest, and it carries with it a power that enriches everything else around it.
Sometimes I wonder why I give so much of my personal time over to movies, especially when I’m trudging away from jackknifed semis like All The King’s Men (2006 version) or emerging from the deadingly whimsy of Little Miss Sunshine. Of course, the reason is simple: sometimes there are achievements like The Departed.