October 10, 2006 [The Departed]

Scorsese looked toward Hong Kong and Infernal Affairs and saw exactly what he'd been aiming at--like Joe Pesci gunning us down at the end of Goodfellas: a plot that melts the good guys with the bad like Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins, a sight you'd pay to see--and, if you're built right, were sorry afterward. Because what are you looking at but happenstance and the effort afterward to deal with it--but oh man, it deals with you. Right off the bat, Nicholson's Frank Costello rolls off a nicely balanced Proverb of Hell when he tells us, "I didn't want to be a product of my environment; I wanted my environment to be a product of me"--and in that twist and curve he stamps the two sides of this movie's coin, flipped and somehow for a while standing on its edge.  From Mean Streets onward, Scorsese has known what he thinks of the Underworld--and he knows it's really two things: that some evil is real, and that some evil is ours. He asks himself, his characters, and us to pay for it and keep it and wait until we have to cash it in--the complicity that's the entrance fee to our humanity and the perdition that waits--that is, unless we knock the coin over and choose, make it heads or tails, rig the game so that, no matter the side we choose, in the end we own it like an Irish Catholic living in misery because he made a promise to stick it out.

I think Scorsese gives us a modern world of chance, like a priest offering a taste of Eternity--but that chance is old, Medieval at least, maybe more: the first sign of bad weather East of Eden, a lightning bolt from outer space bouncing down into Frank's cell phone: not just a product of the environment but the environment itself. The trick is to pick a side--no matter that one looks like the other, Chang and Eng--and hold on like that pit bull, Mark Wahlberg's Dignam (IN-dignant, more like it), who curses out the naughty world and cleans up afterwards.


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