Rats in a Cage

Illustration by AteliérPhoto: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Closely patterned on the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed has an ingenious pretzeled symmetry. The story, transplanted to Boston, centers on two youngish deep-cover agents, a cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) posing as a mobster, and a mobster (Matt Damon) posing as a cop. The first surreptitiously alerts the police captain (Martin Sheen) that a deal is going down, then the second alerts the crime boss (Jack Nicholson) that the cops are on the way. Then the first alerts the captain that the mobsters know the cops are on the way, then the second alerts the crime boss that the cops know the mobsters know the cops are on the way. You can see how things might get tricky, particularly as each rat becomes aware that he has a rat-doppelgänger on the opposite side and attempts to sniff him out. Plenty of movies and TV shows portray the paranoia and loss of identity that come with undercover life. But this one has double-double mirror-image variables to mess with the characters’ heads—and by the way, I mean that literally: The last film with so many geysers of brain matter featured Freddy squaring off against Jason.

Major American auteurs don’t usually sign on to do remakes of foreign hits. My guess is that what attracted Scorsese—apart from the paycheck—was the chance to fashion a fast, mean, relatively impersonal crime thriller in which everyone is damned to hell. There’s no mercy—not even for the audience. (The movie’s theme song is the Stones’s “Gimme Shelter.”) William Monahan’s dialogue is Mamet-speak played at Alvin and the Chipmunks speed with a broad Boston accent. While characters spit yahmuthahfuckedme expletives into one another’s faces (along with peculiar citations of Shakespeare, Freud, and James Joyce), Scorsese and his fab house editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, drive the action brusquely. They cut from Costigan (DiCaprio) to Sullivan (Damon) to Costigan to Sullivan, with each man in the same location in the frame. They can hardly sit still in the present; they leap around in time, splintering a moment into its antecedent and aftermath. They chuck in random splattery head shootings and bashings—like demitasses of espresso in the middle of a long road trip.

The movie works smashingly, especially if you haven’t seen its Hong Kong counterpart and haven’t a clue what’s coming. But for all its snap, crackle, and pop, it’s nowhere near as galvanic emotionally. The star of Infernal Affairs, Tony Leung, had the stillness of a volcano; in the film Hero, he made practicing calligraphy seem fiery. DiCaprio, as good as he is, is on the lumpish side. He has a wide face and lots of brow to furrow, but Scorsese doesn’t linger on him long enough to help us connect with his feverish alienation. It’s easier to read Damon, with his darting little eyes and slippery-squirt smile, but we don’t give a fig about him. Monahan has made the character more of an out-and-out villain—a conscienceless opportunist—than he was in the original. Sullivan hungers for a career in politics. He has no loyalty to anyone, not even his surrogate-father crime boss, and so he has no dramatic stature. Plus, he’s lousy in bed.

The Departed clocks in at two and a half hours, yet it’s two and a half hours of jabber and jolt; even the scenes between Costigan and the court-appointed shrink he tumbles for (the vivid, blue-eyed Vera Farmiga) degenerate into insult-fests. Classical conductors speak of the ability to “sustain the long line”—to stay measured, to resist the impulse to break a passage up into too many climaxes. Scorsese, brilliant as he is, isn’t a long-line kind of guy. He’s a fits-and-starts man, and he and Monahan blow the film’s intricate centerpiece, in which both undercover agents, under tight scrutiny, tap out messages to their bosses on concealed cell phones. The sequence doesn’t have much kick because it doesn’t have much clarity, and it ends abruptly, with a shrug.

The Departed has enough tension to keep you engrossed, though, and enough color for ten crime pictures. Scorsese obviously adores his expensive, expansive ensemble, and this is one of the few films in which the actors’ over-the-top Boston accents actually enhance the performances. Sheen, with his grayish hair swept back, does a puttering little avuncular number that’s hugely likable, and, as his snarling sergeant, Dorchester native Mark Wahlberg gets back in touch with his inner Southie delinquent and almost steals the picture. But he’s matched, expletive for expletive, by Alec Baldwin as the head of the police task force—preening happily, his diction overdeliberate, his twinkling self-infatuation contagious.

Now that Nicholson’s Mulholland Drive neighbor Marlon Brando has given up the ghost, there’s no one on earth whose appetites seem as mythic. As the crime boss Frank Costello, he looks great. Not healthy, but not puffy—haggard in ways that make him more magnetic than ever, and with burning eyes. The Boston accent does wonders for him—it keeps him from slipping into that familiar lazy singsong. In the first half of The Departed, when Nicholson plays it straight and self-contained, he’s shockingly effective, and very scary. I wish Scorsese had nixed the idea to have him swing a big dildo as a gag in a porn theater. As Costello becomes more unhinged, he also becomes more Jack, and we know you can’t kill Jack with ordinary bullets.

Little Children, based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, is an unusually powerful mess, a broad satire of suburban self-indulgence with little in the way of a consistent style, and with a character who’s serious business: a convicted child molester. The movie, directed by Todd Field (In the Bedroom) from a script he wrote with Perrotta, begins with flyers being tacked up around a playground: Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) has moved back to town, to his aged mother’s house not far from all the swings and park benches. “It’s like having an alcoholic working in a bar,” someone clucks. Ronnie doesn’t appear onscreen for some time (he makes a lulu of an entrance), but the mere mention of a pedophile throws all the silly-sexy acting out (extramarital sneaking around, Internet porn) into stark relief. You see past the jokes, to a world in which no one can quite master his or her worst (or second- or third-worst) impulses: a world in which a would-be vigilante, the ex-police officer Larry (Noah Emmerich) is nearly as out of control as the man whose mother’s house he defaces; and a world in which a pair of illicit lovers leave their children scarily vulnerable.

Kate Winslet plays Sarah Pierce, a stay-at-home mom whose brain (she has a master’s in literature) is slowly ossifying. She has stopped taking care of herself, and there’s little between her and her husband (Gregg Edelman)—a man whose erotic life centers on a woman with a Webcam in Florida who calls herself “Slutty Kay.” Floating, glum, half-attentive to her child, Sarah stumbles into a wary but intense relationship with a stay-at-home dad, Brad (Patrick Wilson), a hunk who has failed the bar exam twice and is destined to fail it again. As the bills mount up and his wife (Jennifer Connelly) heads off to make socially committed TV documentaries, Brad watches skateboarders in the park and dreams of being a child again. They’re all children, really—Sarah, Brad, Larry, and, of course, the mama’s boy Ronnie who longs for the playground in more ways than one.

Little Children opens with overliterary narration, then the narrator drops out, and then he comes back for no discernible reason. Field acted in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and now, as a director, seems bent on pushing past the boundaries of realism but with no clear idea of what’s on the other side. But he and Perrotta are on to something: a vision of the world as a giant multiplex in which every person fancies him- or herself a character in a different kind of movie.

As Little Children skitters along, it gathers weight, like a snowball, until it finally knocks you cold. Winslet uses her lowest tones and makes her body an encumbrance—she’s beautifully, expressively slack. But the heart of the movie is the child molester and his childlike tormentor. Ronnie’s defenselessness can be heartbreaking, but to say that he’s not sentimentalized is putting it mildly: His blind date with a tousled basket case (the luminous Jane Adams) goes from rather pathetically touching to eerie to the stuff of nightmares. (In the novel, Perrotta pushed the issue and made Ronnie not just a molester but a murderer—too horrible for the genre.) Haley has barely any flesh on his skull. One moment, he’s a helpless little boy whining for his mommy; the next, he’s Nosferatu, his eyes aglow in hollow sockets, trying to fill a hole that can never, ever be filled. This is satire that doesn’t diminish its characters. It makes them bottomless.

In Angels in America, Patrick Wilson played the all-American Mormon with a secret. In Hard Candy, he played the handsome stranger with a secret. In Little Children, he plays a clean-cut father whose nickname is “The Prom King”—and, wouldn’t you know it, he has a dark secret, too. What gives? “Even in musicals, one of my first jobs was in Carousel, playing a lead guy who happens to be this very abusive husband searching for redemption,” he says. “I guess, when I get offered the Prince Charming roles—the all-American roles—the only reason they’d interest me is if they had the other side.”

The Departed
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros. R.

Little Children
Directed by Todd Field. New Line. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Rats in a Cage