Thursday, March 01, 2007

In Defense Of The Departed

This is entirely for Beth, who was complaining that she didn't see why The Departed was the year's Best Picture. So I'll give you Five Reasons Why The Departed Was A Completely Deserving Win This Year. I will use Excessive Capitization as I see fit.

1. It Was A Very Weak Year For Nominees. This is a troublesome reason to justify a Best Picture win, Beth, but I think that's the real reason why it won. Let's look over the best films of the year.

There were maybe 10 or 11 films that could justify getting nominated in this category. Of the five or six that didn't - let's say Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, Dreamgirls, Thank You For Smoking, United 93 and Casino Royale - I would only call United 93 and Children of Men legitimate contenders. I think if either of them had been nominated, voters would have had trouble voting against them because of the seriousness of the subject matter and the skill with which the filmmakers brought them to the screen.

Of the final five, there wasn't a real strong choice other than The Departed. Even the strongest proponents of the other films had to admit that there were real flaws in their films that made it hard to vote for them as a Best Picture winner. Babel was a very good film with outstanding acting that didn't quite succeed in making the point it was trying to make, which makes it hard to defend it as a Best Picture when the other films clearly did. The Queen wasn't great - it was good, it was very good, but there was no breathtaking factor to it, outside of the stalwart performance and unbelievable resemblance of Helen Mirren to the Queen herself. Letters From Iwo Jima was just too small a scale - it's a war movie without a big budget, with only a few shots of large scale battle, and its bigger moments were sometimes a little over the top. It was a movie about quietness and honor and true bravery from the point of view of another culture - except that the movie itself was from the point of view of our culture, which made the whole thing feel a little put-on. And Little Miss Sunshine, the Charming Favorite of indie film fans everywhere, just lacked Best Picture caliber. It was funny and sweet and well-acted and completely disarming and the sort of film that I'll want to own in my DVD collection, but it didn't feel like a Best Picture. It just felt like a good movie.

Now that we've eliminated everything else:

2. The Performances In The Departed Were, Across The Board, Top-Notch. I think in my original Oscar posting, Beth, I mentioned that Scorsese got subtle performances from people who don't usually give subtle performances, and I'd like to withdraw that comment. Everybody in that film is the sort of quality of actor that's capable of adding layer upon layer to all of their characters, and Scorsese took real advantage of that. Damon and DiCaprio played their parts a razors-edge different from each other - they looked the same, the acted the same, they felt like they were the same person, one of whom had just taken a small step in one direction, one of whom in another - and that made all the difference. Throughout the movie their similarities and differences would become starker and then fade away again, and then return starker than ever, until at the end you can't believe you ever thought they were the same. Nicholson had this disturbing glee to him the whole film that deeply worried me, this sense that as crazy as he was, he could go ahead and get a lot crazier if he wanted to. And then everyone else just stayed carefully in character the whole way through so that those three characters could develop around them.

It's not just great performances by the cast, its a Carefully Scripted And Painstakingly Maintained Pattern Of Almost Invisible Storytelling that separates The Departed from the average thriller, and even from above-average thrillers, and closer towards the realm of the Quietly Brilliant Action Films - The Fugitive, Chinatown, etc.

3. The Film Has A Real Depth To It That You Wouldn't Expect Given Its Subject Matter. I've watched a lot of action movies in my day, and usually the plot bogs down unnecessarily halfway through, and the end of the movie ends up finishing with all the loose ends being tied together quickly after everything else blows up. The most common complaint about the film - that the movie just ends - is only said by people who didn't get what it was about at all.

Beth, you were absolutely right when you said the message of the movie is "you see, nothing really changed. Everything goes on like it did before this whole mess started." That is, in fact, the point of the movie. But the way that it gets there is what matters - there's an immediacy to it, an energy that belies the popcorn nature of the movie.

The story is messy, but the messy aspects of it are deliberate and structured. This is an Art Film For People Who Hate Art Films.

Did I say five reasons, Beth? I meant three reasons. I'm tired of typing. I'll finish up with a couple quick notes:
  • This is a very un-Scorsese movie. As he says it, it's "the first Scorsese movie with a plot." But it's also the first Scorsese movie where the dialogue is more than just a set fixture or an extra layer of character. It's feels almost like it's the first time the words being said move the plot along. Watch part - any part - of Mean Streets and you'll see what I mean.
  • Part of its appeal is that while it's an adaptation of a foreign film, it feels very American - it still has the vague trappings of a foreign film, but it's a Foreign Film That A Lot Of People Can Enjoy.
  • And finally, to answer your questions, Beth - the envelope at the end of the movie probably contained the information about who DiCaprio's character really was, who Damon's character was, and to call Wahlberg and tell him if DiCaprio ended up murdered. That's why Wahlberg showed up at the end - the shrink called him. Wahlberg didn't show up at the deserted building because Anthony Anderson's character didn't call him, even though he was supposed to - a Classic Fatal Mistake for Small Characters in Bloody Action Movies.

Hope that helped.


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