What makes Scorsese known as a great director is not merely his knack for storytelling, character, and setting, but his use of the medium. In his greatest moments, like the fast-motion black and white of Raging Bull, or the voice-overed slow motion of Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead, he expressed his themes through personal stylistic flair, through the images on the screen. His latest film, The Departed, has a great story and screenplay about an undercover policeman who infiltrates the mob, while a mole for the mob infiltrates the police force. It is a strongly cynical portrait of America in which the crooks and local and federal governments are all in cahoots. It also has a fantastic cast from which Scorsese gets a collection of exceptional performances, particularly those of Jack Nicholson, who stops short of literally chewing the scenery but not the flies buzzing about his head, and Vera Farmiga.
But it’s not a directatorial tour-de-force as one would hope (or have been lead to believe from the critical praise), and for that it is a disappointment. Scorsese sits back and plays it by the books, trying to let the screenplay fill the leading role that he himself would usually play. Well, Sidney Lumet could have done that – this is a Scorsese film, man! Whenever he does try to add a little personal flourish to the proceedings they feel half-hearted, as though the film were directed by some young imitator. It is only in the final reel (of many reels) that the film approaches greatness.
In the end, the film is a real let-down – not because it isn’t good, because it is, but because it could’ve been great.