Sunday, June 24, 2007
The history of most genres consists of a fairly irregular pattern of peaks and valleys. A set of brilliant movies establish a given genre and its conventions as subsequent directors try to create unique and fresh stories based on the tried and true patterns; yet the possibility of new twists is not limitless, and many genres pass out of popularity before being rediscovered by a director with a new take on the old genre conventions. Ridley Scott's Gladiator renewed the old sword and sandal epic established by movies like Spartacus and Ben Hur, and its success paved the way for a glut of movies and TV shows set in classical antiquity. The organized crime / mobster genre that was so popular in the 1930's also experienced a resurgence in the 70's-90's with The Untouchables, The Godfather, and a whole host of followers. In my estimation, we've been so saturated with movies and TV shows in the narrow mobster genre in the last 15 years that I imagine success in it will be difficult down the road. One of the most important elements in a lucrative box office is how a given director approaches the genre question-- how can one produce a fresh take on a genre that's so familar as to be reduced to staleness? How can one avoid the "I've seen it before" vibe?
Not being a big fan of the organized crime genre (with the notable exception of On the Waterfront) I didn't see the Best Picture-winning The Departed until just recently and was pleasantly surprised by the novelty of its plot. For a movie bathed in blood and profanity, The Departed's plot is built around the moral insight central to the mobster genre: inexorable justice. Mobster movies generally thrive on the audience's paradoxical indulgence of mobster's violent vices and the inevitable dispensation of justice. Scorcese scores on both points. The Departed's violence, captured through Scorcese's brilliant direction and editing, is intense, real, and (for weaker stomaches such as my own) unwatchable. Scorcese also expresses the theme of justice in a new and poignant way.
Approach this movie with caution, though. The "F-word" is used quite elastically, functioning as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb and expressing the whole gamut of feelings from hatred and contempt to attraction and sensitivity. If you can stomach it, The Departed is a good movie-- it won Best Picture for a reason.