When a movie really does what it’s supposed to, when it makes you want to stay in the theater and think about, discuss and absorb what you just saw on the screen, it can be an experience like no other. This is not to say that it is better than reading an excellent book, discovering an extraordinary album, or seeing a breathtaking theatrical production, for each of these things can shake you to your core in their own unique ways. But when you witness the birth of a truly amazing film, when you sit in the dark and realize that what you are seeing has managed to do almost everything right, these moments are ones to be cherished, and Martin Scorsese has given the public more of them than any other American director of his generation.
From his classics – “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “GoodFellas,” among others – to his second-tier work – “Casino,” “The Color of Money,” “Cape Fear,” and even his recent DiCaprio misfires – Scorsese’s career has been filled with films that have been consistently enthralling in one way or another. Even when the overall product has been subpar, as has been the case with his last few dramatic releases, there is always a reason to keep your eyes glued to the screen. For example, whether or not one enjoyed the entirety of “Gangs of New York,” Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was undeniably riveting. But let’s be honest here, you don’t go into a Scorsese movie hoping that one or two things might keep your interest for a couple hours. Perhaps it is unfair, but when you hear of a new Scorsese picture, you hope for a masterpiece.
No director strikes gold every time he or she steps behind the camera, and those who have struck before rarely do so again. But because Scorsese has given us so many timeless films, so many nights to remember in the dark, we wonder, when we purchase our tickets, if he might have done it again. Since we all were born in the eighties, it is also unlikely that any of us have witnessed one of his true classics in a movie theater during its original run. Even if some of us were dragged to “GoodFellas” as rugrats, we certainly weren’t old enough to appreciate what we’d seen.
Now, for the first time in over a decade, it appears that Scorsese may have put together something that recalls his glory days. “The Departed” has yet to be released, but early buzz is strong, and the fact that Scorsese has left behind his forays into the 19th century and the 1930s is certainly a positive sign. Could it fall short of such expectations? It would be hard for it not to, which of course is the issue Scorsese faces every time he makes a picture. But there are several reasons why we might be seeing a new addition to the Scorsese Hall of Fame this weekend.
As the commercials will tell you endlessly, “The Departed” brings us back to betrayal, double-crossing, and organized crime, themes that Scorsese has milked for great artistic success in the past. If he somehow fails to deliver in this film, it will be the best example of how he has changed as he ages. This contrast will be more obvious than in his more recent films because of the similarity in subject matter to some of his past classics. One main difference, however, between this film and “GoodFellas” is the fact that Paul Sorvino’s largely sympathetic crime boss was something of a shadowy peripheral figure, often disappearing for large stretches of the action whereas in “The Departed,” we are given Frank Costello, the first character to speak, and who dominates the film. Yes, DiCaprio and Damon are the nominal leads, as it is their stories that intertwine and give the film its shape and its backbone. And, yes, Scorsese’s strange decision to use DiCaprio as his new version of DeNiro has not given us a “Taxi Driver” or a “Raging Bull” as of yet, so his presence in the picture could indeed be a warning sign. That said, using the crime boss as a very central figure is certainly an astute decision, and could very well be the factor that elevates the film to heights Scorsese hasn’t reached in years.
Jake Gittes, Robert Eroica Dupea, Randle Patrick McMurphy, Melvin Udall, Garrett Breedlove, and even that clown Jack Napier represent some of the more memorable screen creations in recent film, and movie lovers should be excited to witness Nicholson play, in Frank Costello, a man who is, reportedly, slowly unraveling over the course of the film. Scorsese gave us this treat with DeNiro in “Raging Bull” and, to a lesser extent, in “GoodFellas,” and I want to see Jack take a crack it. It probably won’t be quite as extreme as his insanity in “The Shining,” but with an actor as inventive as Nicholson, Frank Costello will soon be on the aforementioned list. But even though Nicholson is rightly honored as a legend, and co-stars like Damon, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, and even DiCaprio are highly respected, the reason we all ought to see “The Departed” is the man behind the camera.
Whether it’s the way he always seems to know the perfect song to underscore a scene, or the way that he elevates the universal themes (guilt, betrayal, the horrific consequences of violence, and the like) that run through his films to unexpected heights every time around, or even the way that he has coaxed so many brilliant performances out of so many actors for so many years, it is Scorsese’s guiding hand, more than anything else, that allows us to hope that we will see a new masterpiece this weekend.
Every fall, we’re supposed to be treated to scores of great films, and every fall, most of them fall far short of expectations, no matter how great their pedigree. But this weekend, it may turn out that one of our very finest directors has given us the type of experience that all moviegoers cherish above any other. And for this, we can only be grateful.