The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese | 2hr 31min

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who is a police officer and who is a gangster in The Departed. These characters are destined to die awful deaths from the moment they commit themselves to one cause or the other, caught in the crosshairs of the Xs which Martin Scorsese slyly plants all through his mise-en-scene. They are framed as steel beams in industrial settings, patterned in hallway carpets, and cast on walls in thin strips of light, but most of all they are consistently present at the demises of each key player. Scorsese is not the first to adopt this motif, as it was previously used to similarly excellent effect in the original 1932 Scarface, but The Departed even more fully realises it as the thread binding each character to their sad, inescapable fates, dealing out equally cruel sentences with no regard for the loyalties they held in life.

Carrying on this motif from Scarface, Scorsese uses the Xs in his mise-en-scène to portend death – a wonderful visual touch in a film that otherwise relies so much on its genius narrative.

Out of all of them, it is Irish-American mobster Frank Costello who recognises the futility of such allegiances, and plays the game the way that he alone sees fit – lasting as long as he can on pure self-preservation. Like so many others, he is marked by those deathly Xs right from his introduction, but his opening voiceover is also accompanied by darkness and camera angles which keep his face from view. Where we once reflected on Henry Hill’s childhood aspirations to be a gangster through his own eyes in Goodfellas, we now look back to the past through the perspective of the mentor grooming boys into his inner circle, revealing the sleazy underside of this lifestyle long before the children are old enough to see it for themselves. For all the cynicism present in these opening minutes though, Scorsese’s editing remains as sharp as ever, breezily whisking us through the parallel ascents of two young police officers, Billy Costigan and Colin Sullivan, whose overlapping lives precariously hang on the rapidly narrowing distance keeping them apart.

Dramatic irony runs thick through Scorsese’s narrative on many levels, leaving only the audience aware of the shared coincidences and quietly significant developments drawing the two men together. On one side, Costigan is ordered by his superiors to ingratiate himself with Frank’s gang, while on the other, Sullivan is sent by Frank to infiltrate the police. Both are aware that within their own organisations there is a rat leaking information, and yet the closer they get to their targets, the closer they are to being caught out themselves, and Scorsese mines the enthralling suspense of this self-defeating quest for all it is worth. Victory and subjugation go hand in hand for these men, while above them they are outmanoeuvred by a figure more cunning than either. Acting simultaneously as a crime boss and FBI informant, Frank will happily play to both sides of the aisle, demanding loyalty from others while refusing to give anyone his own. With the reveal of his duplicity comes a demonic, red glow that Scorsese casts over him in an opera theatre, detaching him even further from any semblance of the organised religion he outright rejects.

Satanic imagery, bathing Jack Nicholson’s Frank in this red glow at the opera.

And yet despite all the complex machinations of this cat-and-mouse game, Scorsese draws a simple, powerful duality right down its centre, strongly suggesting traces of Michael Mann’s Heat in its study of two morally opposed minds obsessively circling each other. Like younger versions of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon offer up gritty, highly-strung performances as men trying desperately to gain the approval of their superiors, and yet who also share a common understanding of each other.

Highly-strung performances from both DiCaprio and Damon, a significant landmark in both their careers.

Evidently the paths to success as a man in either culture is paved with the same milestones of working hard, obeying orders, finding a girlfriend, and settling down, though the closeness of their trajectories is especially striking when they fall in love with the same woman, police psychiatrist Dr. Madolyn Madden. In effect, the two men share the same lives, and when they finally reach each other for the first time on the phone, a silent tension hangs in the air, drawn out by Scorsese’s suspenseful cutting to both sides of the call. As if realising that with the discovery of their adversary’s identity comes the exposure of their own, neither wants to be the first to speak, fearing the destruction of everything they have built for themselves.

Suspenseful cutting to either side of this phone call – excellent work from Scorsese’s regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

For Costigan and Sullivan though, that single-minded compulsion to uncover the other rat first dominates all other survival instincts, and while The Departed does not exactly reach the stylistic heights of other Scorsese films, he still savours those thrilling set pieces which push them to their limits. Split diopters are used to great effect in building out the strained relationships of characters separated between layers of the frame, and the rock soundtrack heavily featuring Celtic punk band The Dropkick Murphys lends an aggressive Irish-American edge to their exploits. Among the most riveting sequences of the film though follows their chase outside a porn theatre where Scorsese throws them into smoke-filled alleyways of red and blue neon lights, setting up urban obstacles that offer plenty of hiding places and yet which keep both from catching glimpses of their opponent’s faces.

Scorsese returns to these split diopter shots a few times – wonderful depth of field.
A stylistic highlight of the film, sending DiCaprio and Damon through these smokey alleyways, and of course marking the scene with a giant red X.

For all these wonderful visual flourishes though, The Departed is clearly operating more on the strength of its narrative than the lively experimentations we witnessed in Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. Its intricate construction of double-crosses and manipulations never get so convoluted as to become messy, but it rather propels this riveting story forward with impeccable pacing, leading these characters towards their inevitable graves. Frank may be the most purely evil of them all, and yet it is his nihilistic ethos which leaves the largest legacy, undermining every attempt to assert some grand sense of justice or meaning in the world. Just like Scorsese’s persistent Xs, the equal but opposite forces of Costigan and Sullivan essentially cancel each other out, and their realisations that they are not as exceptional as they would like to believe might almost be as shocking as the bullets which hopelessly reduce them to nothing.

Paying homage to the final shot of The Third Man with the superb staging in this cold rejection.

The Departed is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Reprise (2006)

Joachim Trier | 1hr 45min

To reprise a creative expression of some sort is to recreate it with the expectation of a similarly rapturous reception, though the reclaiming act that best friends Erik and Phillip attempt to carry out is merely based on some fantasy of success that exists in their minds. As the two aspiring writers sit on the precipice of submitting their manuscripts to publishers, their possible futures play out like novels, with an omniscient narrator framing them as protagonists in stories where personal struggles eventually give way to great literary achievements. Both lives rapidly flit by in a black-and-white collage of freeze frames, magazine articles, book covers, and maps, all while our narrator provides steady reassurance that everything will eventually work out for the two young men.

Reprise’s energy is built on its editing, opening with this playful black-and-white montage of Erik and Phillip’s hopeful futures. Split screens, moving photos, freeze frames – Trier is pulling out all the stops.

And yet, these dreams all rest on a conditional tense – they “would have” come true were it not for some vague, unspecified turn of fate. For Phillip, success is attained but short-lived, sending him to the top of the Norwegian literary scene before he comes crashing down in a psychotic episode. For Erik, failure is the motivation to keep revising his novel over and over until lightning hopefully strikes. Though their paths diverge, a mutual emotional support remains, lifting each other up through personal struggles so that their sparks of creativity may one day be recognised.

It is those energetic sparks which fizzle all through Reprise, tantalising us with vivacious editing that expresses a distinctly Truffautian sensibility, constantly leaping beyond the boundaries of the immediate narrative with playful cutaways and montages. One could even line the film up next to Jules and Jim and draw connections between both studies of bohemian male friendship, as well as the pair of women who dramatically shift their tight dynamics. Time moves fast for Erik and Phillip, but it also seems to fall away all together, distancing them from any arbitrary deadlines and allowing them instead to sit in the lively momentum of their youth.

Kari comes into Erik and Phillip’s friendship like Catherine does in Jules and Jim, inadvertently setting in motion Phillip’s breakdown.

These characters do not simply exist independent of Joachim Trier’s experimental stylings but are rather closely intertwined in formal unity. As one of Erik’s friends encourages him to break up with his girlfriend, Trier intercuts the scene with the leadup to the conversation itself, anxiously anticipating whatever emotional breakdown is about to take place. And then, just as Erik arrives at her door, we are suddenly sent flying into a shameful childhood flashback of a time he was mean to one of his school peers. Later, a side character returning home claims he is heading upstairs to read the Heidegger book he just bought, while a sneaky cutaway reveals the porn magazine in his bag. Such is the nature of Trier’s omniscient perspective that he is free to wander across this timeline at free will and poke into secret corners, examining his characters not as independent beings, but as subjects of their own stories.

The photography isn’t among the film’s strengths, but Trier takes the time to deliver these isolating character compositions.

Through this Brechtian lens, Trier pushes narrative developments which don’t so much unfold organically as they do by strokes of both good and bad fortune. It could very well be the same luck which saw Phillip initially succeed over Erik that also sees the latter unassumingly insult a disabled writer on a talk show, just one of many incidents stringing him along to failure. The comedy here is bitingly dry, though not without catharsis. Hope comes in the form of a miracle that would have almost been entirely unbelievable were it not for the sequence of mishaps which led to that point.

True to the form of the piece, Trier ends Reprise with another idealistic dream of the future, conjuring similarly happy prospects for both Erik and Phillip as those from the start. The subjectivity and elusiveness of success makes any real conclusivity difficult for men like these, who constantly strive for some idea of greatness that never stops changing. Trier empathises with them all too well, even with the distance he keeps. The novelistic qualities he embeds into Reprise seek not to ostracise the young creatives, but rather to understand them in the way they might ultimately one day write about themselves – with sensible hindsight, compassion, imagination, and a good, healthy dose of self-deprecating humour.

Conversations about love, literature, and success – a strong screenplay from Trier.

Reprise is currently streaming on Mubi.

Still Life (2006)

Jia Zhangke | 1hr 51min

An expansive concrete dam, a mossy green river, and a crumbling grey city – this is the setting for Jia Zhangke’s greatest cinematic experiment in neorealism since Platform, and its three-pronged geographic metaphor is absolutely devastating. At the start of Still Life, the village of Fengjie is already half-submerged in water, as the flow from the soon-to-be-completed Three Gorges Dam has partially flooded the valley. But this project isn’t done yet, and in order to finish it off, everything else in its path must be torn down as well. 
The tension between China’s fading history and the nation’s relentless pursuit of economic development has always been a critical target for Jia, but his use of architecture to reflect that has rarely been so stirring and visceral as it is here. Unlike Platform, we aren’t just watching a gradual decay, but rather the violent actions of an ancient village’s own inhabitants bringing about an apocalyptic vision of modernity. The layering of shots is especially important here, as Jia will often foreground quiet interactions against magnificent backgrounds of vast, hollow structures, and then aggressively rupture that tranquillity by collapsing those buildings before our eyes. It is arresting imagery, if not a little terrifying, and the impact is only intensified when we move in closer to montages of the deconstruction crews fiercely hammering away, taking the city apart brick by brick.

Jia’s architecture has never been so impactful in its rapid disintegration, a city literally collapsing around our characters in gorgeous frames like this.

Just as impressive is Jia’s attention to the symmetrical, trifurcated narrative structure of Still Life, splitting the story of one man’s return to Fengjie to search for his long-lost wife into the first and third acts, and then paralleling that journey with a middle act which follows a woman’s search for her husband. Just like Wong Kar-wai’s mirrored narratives of Chungking Express, neither of these plotlines meet directly and yet they share crucial similarities – Han Sanming and Shen Hong are both coming from the Shanxi province, are confronted by the destruction of a city that their memories are intertwined with, and must grapple with uncertain relationships being repressed by social changes. Even more remarkably, both bear witness to the most bizarre breaking of realism that Jia has attempted in any of his films thus far, as he transitions from Han’s story to Shen’s through their silent observation of a flying saucer flying above the city. As Jia himself puts it:

“Such a quick destruction of a 2000-year-old town is simply unimaginable. It’s as if there was an alien invasion.” 

A sci-fi intrusion into this narrative acting as a formal link between our two main characters who never directly meet even as they travel parallel journeys.
Beyond Antonioni, there are traces of Yasujirō Ozu in compositions like these.

Perhaps it’s all the same to the locals who witness this destruction every day, but to these two outsiders, it is an absurd sight to behold. Jia digs even further into this metaphor in continually returning to a shot of a building that looks a little out of place in its uneven design, and then, the final time we visit it, suddenly blasting it off into space. Elsewhere, workers in hazmat suits comb through the city’s ruins, looking uncannily like extra-terrestrial visitors, while droning, futuristic synths underscore it all. The Antonioni influence goes far beyond Jia’s extraordinary use of architecture to define his characters and their relationships – his overt blending of science-fiction tones with an otherwise realistic narrative and visuals strongly evokes a similar atmosphere captured in the final scene of L’Eclisse, where another ghost town vacated of its humanity is filled with an eerie, otherworldly emptiness.  

Men in hazmat suits looking like unearthly aliens as they comb through the debris of this city – almost apocalyptic.
Truly Antonioni-inspired in the angles of these structures, as labourers erode its foundations like termites.

Of course, it is important to remember that much of this ancient village has already been well and truly forgotten by its own citizens. When Han goes looking for his old house where he hopes to find his wife, he instead finds that it is submerged beneath the lake that ferries now lightly skim over, unmindful of the lost history that lies beneath the surface. Beyond its metaphorical implications, this flooding also practically complicates Han’s quest to reconnect to his own past, as he finds it has also erased many of the links that might have helped him find his way back. The motif of China burying its humanity is reflected in one especially cruel instance where a worker is crushed beneath a falling pile of rubble, and is nearly forgotten and lost completely until his colleagues hear his ringing phone. And as Jia reminds us by framing the Three Gorges Dam construction site in the background of Shen’s eventual breakup with her cheating, greedy husband, all of this cultural and personal devastation is wreaked by China’s inexorable economic ambitions.

A flooded city symbolising a repressed, forgotten past, rendered in ethereal, otherworldly greens.

Much of Han and Shen’s wandering through this dying city is permeated by a sickly, green haze that seems to cling to the river and forested mountains, simultaneously suffocating its remaining residents while bringing an ethereal beauty to its scenes of rapid decay. Nestled in a peaceful valley, geographically cut off from the rest of the world, this setting might have once been a quiet retreat from the industrial progress of modern China. But now, with the violent, aberrant influence of globalisation invading the far corners of the nation’s most sacred regions, the Fengjie of Still Life is a ghost town both utterly disconnected from its cultural identity and actively destructive of its own history.

Oppressive architecture wrapping around and towering over our characters, most significantly the Three Gorges Dam responsible for the flooding of the city.

Still Life is available to stream on Stan, Binge, Foxtel Now, and The Criterion Channel.

Casino Royale (2006)

Martin Campbell | 2hr 24min

With a new era of James Bond came a re-invention of not just the character himself, but an entire sub-genre of action espionage films. Here is an actor throwing his body into a role like a Buster Keaton-type stuntman, building a full identity out of that visceral recklessness, and carrying it off with all the class we would expect from a character so notorious for his charm and seduction. When asked if he wants his vodka martini shaken or stirred after losing a round of high-stakes poker, his response is a sharp “Do I look like I give a damn?”, marking an abrupt departure from his cool, aloof predecessors.

This is the image of 007 that has become inextricably tied to Daniel Craig, and yet the success of Casino Royale goes beyond his central performance, oozing stylish elegance in Martin Campbell’s sleek camera movements that avoid harsh cuts where a simple pan, tilt, or rack focus would suffice. The latter in particular efficiently guides our attention between Bond and the subjects of his scrutiny, letting visual information emerge organically without the need to move away from his face.

An elegant rack focus moving our attention around the scene.

Building up this character even further are Campbell’s spectacular set pieces, each one revealing different aspects of Bond’s identity. The first one, a chase across cranes, scaffolding, and construction sites in Madagascar, sees Bond pursue a bomb-maker with a knack for free running. While the target is sliding through tight spaces and leaping fences with ease, Daniel Craig’s Bond simply can’t keep up. Luckily his devil-may-care attitude and resourcefulness is more than enough compensation. He runs through drywall as a short cut, and he takes possession of a bulldozer to wipe out any obstacles in his way. The denouement in which Bond assassinates his target against official orders pays off on his established rebelliousness with a final stinger, uncovering a dangerous ego which lies beneath his otherwise quiet allure. And all throughout, Campbell’s camera never stops moving in agile, controlled motions, imbuing the scene with the same energy and momentum that makes James Bond such a dynamic character.

Ambitious, practical set pieces like these making Daniel Craig a daring action star for a new generation.

Facing off against Bond in this instalment is Mads Mikkelsen’s sumptuously wicked banker, Le Chiffre, a truly reprehensible villain to behold. A “derangement of the tear duct” causes him to weep blood, and with a scar slashing across a clouded eye, he is set apart as an inhumanly damaged force of malevolence. The scenes of Texas hold ‘em poker distils his conflict with 007 down to a game of wits, in which both foes are fairly evenly matched. Even then, Bond’s smarts aren’t enough for Le Chiffre’s dishonesty, who, after losing all his money, kidnaps, strips, and beats the MI6 agent. As superhuman as Bond seems to be at times, Daniel Craig’s vulnerability here reveals an exposed man with nothing to rely on but a smart-ass attitude. Though his fortitude remains, his elegant style isn’t inherent in his being. At his core he is a reckless, egocentric asshole, always wanting to get in the final word.

Mads Mikkelsen’s devious Le Chiffre is an appropriately extravagant adversary for this new Bond.

In the striking final set piece of a large building sinking into Venice’s Grand Canal, Bond displays his first true bit of selflessness in trying to rescue his associate and love interest, Vesper, from her doom. As they say goodbye beneath the water, he reaches through the bars of the elevator that she is trapped within, watching the life drain from the only woman he was ever willing to give up everything for. As much as James Bond is typically considered a standard action hero archetype, Martin Campbell’s masterfully efficient set pieces paired with Daniel Craig’s complex performance of a man fighting with his ego thrillingly rejuvenates this classic mainstay of British film, and together hold Casino Royale up as a remarkable piece of character-driven, action cinema.

Casino Royale is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.