Sunday, August 05, 2007

Deus Ex Machina

I just sat through a rather brutal and overwrought affair called The Departed.  It was a hit movie from several months ago, starring Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson (who, interestingly, got third billing), Leonardo DiCaprio (whom I like to call "DiCrapio"), Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alex Baldwin, and a plethora of others.

I'd heard so many good things about the movie, I was a little excited to see it.  Like most movies, my wife and I don't bother to watch first-run.  We have two children under 6 years old; theater experiences aren't all that fantastic for us; and we just don't like shelling about nearly $10 a ticket to go see a movie.  So, it's on Pay-Per-View now, and we thought this would be a good opportunity to finally watch it.

We actually started watching something else, the name of which I can't even recall now.  But it was so incredibly bad in acting and writing (great music behind everything though) we just couldn't stand to sit through its 94 minute run time.  So, we killed it and went with The Departed instead.

It started off good.  Soon after, it became a bit convoluted and a tiny bit confusing, at least for me.  My wife finally clarified some of what was going on for me, and I tried to keep up.

I've got to reiterate -- Matt Damon is a great actor.  He played, for the first time in my experience, a villain.  And not just a run-of-the-mill villain, but a rather weasely sort of back-stabbing, conniving villain.  He cheated and killed most everyone in the movie, including the ethnically confused character portrayed by Jack Nicholson.  Mark Wahlberg was an under-developed character but we get the impression that he's extremely committed to his cause.  That's good, because we don't get to identify with him as audience members very much, so using him as an archetypal anti-hero was all that remained, I suppose.

In summation, Matt Damon is recruited into someone's branch of mafia at an early age.  He goes on to the Massachusetts State Police Academy, becomes a State Trooper, and rises quickly to the rank of plain clothes detective.  At the same time, Leonardo DiCaprio is going to the same Academy a year or two behind Damon, and he also graduates, but is recruited by Martin Sheen, a captain, and Mark Wahlberg to the undercover division of the force.  There, he is placed deeply undercover, including an arrest for assault and battery to create a criminal record for him.  He then has an incredible stroke of luck when he beats the tar out of two mafia henchmen from Providence.  Rhode Island, I assumed, but I couldn't be certain.  At any rate, Damon informs Nicholson of what's occurred, and before long, DiCaprio is taken into the care of the local Mafioso.  He works directly for Sheen and Wahlberg, and is in cell phone contact with Sheen on a regular basis.

After months of work undercover, DiCaprio determines (because he scored 1400 on the SATs) that there is "rat" in the organization.  It's him, of course, but he also figured out there was another cop betraying his efforts.  That would be Damon, who called Nicholson from time to time in the movie and told him about various police activities, surveillance, and impending raids.  Nicholson always slides free, and before long DiCaprio discovers that Nicholson is also an FBI informant.  There is utter chaos regarding whom to trust and whom to accuse.  Eventually, to protect the identity of DiCaprio from the mob who come to kill him, Sheen is thrown from the top of a waterfront building to his death.  Now with no help, Damon and DiCaprio form a tentative and terse, not to mention short-lived, contact.

In the end, there is a lot of shooting and head-blowing-off that goes on.  I've never seen so many brains separated from bodies in a single movie, but then, I don't see that many movies.  The problem I had was that the movie pulled a maneuver that was frequently used during plays in ancient Greece and Rome, wherein a protagonist is pitted against a situation that is next to insurmountable.  In most cases, it actually is insurmountable, but to resolve the irresolvable problem, they would literally provide divine intervention.  The gods themselves would intervene and allow the resolution impossible by human means.

The technique was common.  A "god" would be lowered onto the stage.  An actor, portraying the deity, would be lowered onto the set with a machine to simulate a god descending from heaven.  The term given to the theatrical device was deus ex machina, or god out of the machine.

Now, it represents any piece of writing or filmmaking wherein some device not previously introduced is suddenly injected into the story to resolve the issue and make things possible that weren't before.  And what, you ask, does this lengthy and unnecessary explanation have to do with the movie?

Well, as things seem to be tidy and clean for Damon's character, and DiCaprio has figured out that he was the one on the police side providing information to Nicholson's character and providing the means for escape and elusion, DiCaprio sends a recording to Damon of a conversation he had with Nicholson.

I sat there, literally, confused as all get-out wondering how the heck DiCaprio got the recording.  I saw that he was in the theater, but couldn't understand how the recording came into existence.  Fortunately, DiCaprio explains in a phone conversation with Damon that Nicholson's character recorded it; and that he recorded everything.  He had, apparently, boxes and boxes of tapes from recordings he'd made, and had sent them to a lawyer.  After Nicholson's demise in the movie, those tapes, somehow, became available to DiCaprio.

Ah, deus ex machina at its finest.  We know, as the audience, that Nicholson was an FBI informant, and that there were at least two cops working under cover in Nicholson's organization.  Now we will soon find out that there was another cop working for Nicholson in the police force just as Damon's character was, and that character would save Damon's career at the last possible minute.  DiCaprio is killed trying to arrest and expose Damon, and then Damon kills the rescuer in order to pin the entire mole operation on him and thereby clear himself.  It all would have worked perfectly, except that for some reason, there is another instance of deus ex machina at the very, very end, and Mark Wahlberg murders Matt Damon and ties all loose ends together.

Whew!  Confused?  Well, that's partially my fault.  I've not done a great job of explaining the movie, but I didn't want to give a play-by-play plot recount.  Basically, one good cop, one bad cop, one mafia boss, one bloody movie.  Every one of merit in the movie is killed.  Only Alex Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg remain alive at the end.

It's the deus ex machina that gets me, though.  We haven't been told, as an audience, that:

  1. Nicholson's character is recording every conversation he has with anyone.  This is important information and giving it to the audience ahead of its appearance in the movie would have been beneficial to making this aspect of the movie believable.
  2. How DiCaprio came to be entrusted by the lawyer to whom all these tapes have been provided such that he would then have access to them.
  3. That there is another cop on the Nicholson character's payroll.  That would have made the last half hour of the movie less ... well, deus ex machina, frankly.

Those three points may not kill the movie, but they did for me.  I think that you should show the gun over the mantle if you're later going to have a character pull the gun off its display and murder another character.  Not having a lot of explanation for these things makes them what I call "groan points" in the movie, completely removing any chance I may have had of suspending disbelief and actually enjoying the movie.

The cons: weak story at best, weak execution, too many rabbits being pulled out of hats, especially at the end.  The pros: well acted, very believable from a character portrayal standpoint, top-notch cast and director.  Heck, I even like Alex Baldwin and Martin Sheen's acting -- something I'm not normally accustomed to doing.

So, overall, The Departed was an okay movie, but I'm really glad I didn't see it on the heels of Good Shepherd.  That one remains one of my all-time favorites, and following it with this flight of fancy would have diminished it for me, I'm certain.

I recommend it on DVD or on premium channel; don't bother even paying the $3.99 for it from PPV.


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