Monday, January 29, 2007
The idea was so simple and so obvious that it is indeed quite surprising that it took this long for the writers, on both sides of the world, to stumble upon it and make a movie out of it. The construct of having the lead guy (a cop) infiltrate the opposite group and work for the outside party from the inside has been dealt to death in a variety of ways in a multitude of languages (down the latest telugu hit movie Pokiri). Taking the provident idea further along the line and making another guy (this time, one from the mob) become a mole in the first group appears to be a stroke of divine genius. The good guy is the wrong group and the bad guy in the right group. And the movie is all about who gets to whom first and how. Hong Kong cinema's lack of big budgets came as a blessing in disguise to movies such as Infernal Affairs (on which The Departed is based) to take root and gain shape. Movies as these rely more on the central idea than on the prospect of mushroom cloud explosions, slick gun fight choreographies, and thrilling action sequences. These movies understand that the underlying suspense of near misses and close calls, and the nerve racking tensions dealing with everyday life in the enemy camp while trying to glean valuable information to their side, are just/good enough reasons to write off the other action elements (chases, explosions and other action sequences) out of the script and completely rely on this survive till death game. Whereas explosions are momentary and rarely gratifying, the prospect of the plot thickening towards unmasking of the real identities is juicy enough to warrant a Hollywood remake with the director, whose hands are well soaked in (fake movie) blood, wielding the megaphone.
It was like a marriage made in heaven when Scorsese was made to helm the affairs trying to bring Infernal Affairs to this side of the ocean. Prior to The Departed, Scorsese's brush with real remakes was when he tackled the likes of DeNiro, Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange for Cape Fear. Before proceeding with The Departed, it is necessary to observe how Scorsese approaches the process of remakes, to full appreciate how he handled Infernal Affairs, when transporting it to bigger budget and a wider audience. Cape Fear, in its original version, is about an ex-prisoner who tries to exact revenge on his attorney, for how he thinks the case has been handled with gross neglect and misrepresentation, earning him a long and hard time in the slammer. It is a straight thriller story of how the attorney protects his family from the prisoner, finally killing him in the process. When Scorsese was entrusted with the job of remaking Cape Fear, he changed the playing field completely, retaining only the key players and the important plays. He brings in morality into the mix - the lawyer having an affair with his secretary straining an already fractious relationship with his wife, the teenage daughter slowly drifting away from the family unut because of it, the constant tension that permeates the household and a sense of growing bitterness between the members with each passing day. Into such a setup walks the prisoner with a score to settle. This is a brilliant stroke of introducing the familial rift into an already explosive situation to heighten the tension, so when the teenager daughter starts flirting with the prisoner, the subtext is not just of the usual teenage rebellion, but one of abandonment and aloofness that the prisoner masterfully exploits. And same is the case when the wife comes to know that the secretary is brutally attacked by the prisoner. Her reaction is one of stifled glee and muted excitement - something that she always wanted to do, but never could. When the basic humanity is lost in the muddle of bad relationships and sour marriages, the actions that the prisoner is trying to perpetrate are not that far removed from what the members of the family are trying to inflict upon one another - the only difference being, the former is physical while the latter is psychological. In both the cases, the scars remain the same.
That was how Scorsese reimagined the situation in Cape Fear, than merely translate the original script, contemporizing the content only to the extent of its period and its ambience. Similarly, with The Departed, apart from the obvious cat and mouse aspect of the script, he brings in the question of loyalty. When Nicholson's character says at the beginning "when you are faced with a loaded gun, what does it matter which side you are on", it sets the tone for the rest of the movie that tries to find a reasonable answer to that question. Though Scorsese dealt with many mob movies before, delving into the depths and exploring the different facets of life in the mob, The Departed is far removed from everything he has done till date, though it involves similar set of characters - mob bosses, resolute cops, brutal slayings, loyalties, moralites and such. Scorsese is not concerned about who is wrong and who is wrong, he does not seems to be interested in the motivations of both of the lead characters (the good guy in the mob and the bad guy hunting for him from within the police squad). He seems to ave a single minded devotion towards the inevitable meeting that happens in the climax and the rest of it all works towards building up that moment. In the way Scorsese moves his pieces, he seems to be following the famous Hitchcock style of heightening the suspense and elevating the tenstion (at every moment when both the players almost get caught with their hands in the cookie jar) than falling back on his old tricks of the trade. Though Scorsese's Goodfellas also deals with the same issues of loyalty in much greater detail (when each of the scheming characters turn coat in the face of mortal danger), The Departed allows no such room for moral high grounds, relying purely on the struggle for existence in every second of the living in the enemy camp, adding more weight to Nicholson's statement - when confronted with a loaded gun, what does it matter, who is right or who is wrong.
It also departs from the original Infernal Affairs in the way the final climactic moments is purely about the game of survival and not about the change of hearts and realization of right/wrong, as it is with the original. In that way, Scorsese seems to have understood the material better than the original writers, who have given into the routine folly of making the bad character realize the error in his ways, if the character is played by a big star. Scorsese rids of the moral ambivalence and the ethical ambiguity making The Departed a pure adrenaline treat, sans any subtext about the "why"s and the "how"s. From among the performances, DiCaprio stands out as the embattled undercover cop trying to keep a sane head in the midst of the maddening mob crowd. One can clearly feel the vulnerability of his (moral) character and the inevitable transformation that he has to resist indulging in everything evil on a daily basis. With a stellar support cast accounting for the rest of the details, The Departed comes as a full circle in the career of Scorsese who started off with "Mean Streets", which also subscribes to a similar edict - "You don't make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. All the rest is bulls..t and you know it". Amazing, how the same tent applies to both sides of the world, even after all these years...