Doesn’t matter if you’re shipping up to Boston or dropping by the Overlook Hotel for a cozy winter getaway, the films in this week’s Reel Rumbles are sure to leave you blown away. For director Martin Scorsese, it was the film that finally earned him the respect of his peers. Uniting a stellar cast of hot new stars and old favorites, the auteur breathed his own style into the modern Asian classic Infernal Affairs (2002) with a tale of isolation and deception that struck chords with critics and delivered a shocking and graphic finale for audiences. But it has some stiff competition in the form of an unforgettable horror masterpiece from one of cinema’s most influential directors, Stanley Kubrick. Sharing one star and a common theme on the dangers of isolation, Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel emblazoned horrifying imagery into popular culture and stands as perhaps his lead’s finest hour. Believe your eyes. Watch your back. And beware of Jack Nicholson. It’s time for The Departed vs. The Shining.
The Departed (2006) tells the story of undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who receives assignment to infiltrate the crime syndicate of ruthless boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Billy plays gangster even better than he does cop, quickly earning Costello’s confidence and accruing valuable information that could eventually sink his target. Meanwhile, Costello suspects that all is not well in his kingdom, and employs an undercover agent of his own to get to the bottom of it. Raising Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) up to do his bidding, Costello has succeeded in getting Colin on the inside to try and find out what the police know. As Billy and Colin sink deeper and deeper into their double lives, each side becomes aware that the other has an inside man. With discovery only a matter of time, the race is on for Billy and Colin to uncover the other’s identity before it’s too late. With survival depending on betrayal, can either man do what is necessary to save his skin and complete his mission? Or will the relationships they’ve made along the way be their ultimate undoing?
Switching to the horror genre, The Shining (1980) follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), as they take a job at the Overlook, a hotel of amazing beauty and scope removed from civilization and given to violent winter storms, which cut it off even further from humanity during the bitterly cold months. Just so happens the nature of Jack’s job is to look after the Overlook, run the boilers, make sure the elements don’t weigh too heavily on it so when the next season rolls around, it’ll be open for business. It’s an easy enough job, and perfect for Jack, a teacher/writer working on his new book. Only problem is that the hotel has a dark, evil history that parallels Jack’s own alcoholism and fragile stability. Placing him in the middle of this situation is a recipe for disaster, especially when you consider the supernatural forces lurking in the rooms and corridors of the Overlook’s spacious interiors. At first, they are terrors that only Danny can see. He shares a gift with the hotel’s cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers). Called “the shining,” it makes Danny capable of prophetic and horrific visions that could be he and his family’s only hope of surviving the harsh winter. As the snow piles up and the visions creep in on Jack’s sanity, the family must fight against the hotel and an ax-wielding maniac if they hope to get out alive.
Both films hold viewer interest and lead to shattering third acts that really put the squeeze on your emotions. However, it is The Departed that plots the most compelling course, at least on concept. How will Scorsese keep his two primary players moving along with the story? As the noose tightens on our heroes, what possible means could they have at their disposal to escape what is coming and place viewers merrily on their way to a standard Hollywood ending? Let’s just say this is not standard Hollywood fare, and you don’t always see what is coming, or when it will happen? And while it may not execute the mechanics of its script as well as the competition, it’s like a good crime novel that you just can’t put down.
Advantage: The Departed, 10-9.
As terrific as The Departed is on story, plotting, and concept, The Shining is equally impressive in the nuts and bolts of bringing its story to life. Every scene is drenched with ominous feelings of fear and dread. Yes, it owes much to the direction of Kubrick, which will be discussed further in round four, but don’t think for a moment that these characters are not richly rendered by the Kubrick-Diane Johnson screenplay. Jack is a friendly, personable face, clearly struggling under the weight of his alcoholism. As for Wendy, she seems clueless enough, but a closer examination of her relationship with Jack tells another story. She seems to fear his mood swings and looks to him as a master of sorts, yet at the same time, she has been able to keep his drinking in check for several months by using her husband’s guilt over hurting Danny to control him. And as for Danny, he is a cunning, resourceful young man, contemplative in thought, slow to speak, and ultimately wise beyond his years. With Hallorann as his guide, Danny is able to foresee and decipher the danger ahead.
It’s common knowledge that King had many problems with the way Kubrick brought his novel to life, stating in a 1986 interview: “It’s like a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside, you can sit in it and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery – the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere. So I would do everything different. The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre” (American Film, June 1986 issue). Unfortunately, King did do everything differently with a follow-up mini-series years later that was only a shell of this different but all together superior filmed version. Novels naturally have more meat on their bones. To translate its pages onto film is a challenging task, especially when attempting to deliver something that is very much in the spirit of the source, yet surprising and original. This is a rare case where I feel the filmmaker succeeds, and King’s arguments smack of sour grapes, which overcome the willingness to see the film for the achievement it truly is. The decisions Kubrick and Johnson make with King’s novel transform it into a film-able piece within the constructs of standard feature running times. The end product as well as critical and audience reception speak for themselves.
Advantage: The Shining, 10-9.
The Departed is a loaded automatic in the acting department. For starters, Scorsese always gets a quality performance out of DiCaprio. Gangs of New York. The Aviator. The Departed. You can set your watch to it. Always. Lending support are Matt Damon (The Bourne Identity), Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now), Ray Winstone (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), and Vera Farmiga (Orphan). But the guy that really steals the show is Mark Wahlberg. As foul-mouthed and hot-tempered Staff Sergeant Dignam, a man so intent on bringing down the bad guys he doesn’t care anything about preservation of self or the law in doing so, his intensity is unequaled by anyone else in the film. It’s an under-the-radar role with star-making execution. Unfortunately, it calls attention to Nicholson’s disappointing turn as Costello. At no point does the veteran lose himself and let the character take shape. He is Jack Nicholson doing what NIcholson has been wont to do here in the twilight stages of his career: overact. This is not the Nicholson of The Shining, where he gives a performance so unhinged and disturbing it makes you actually believe he is Jack Torrance. Nicholson’s final unraveling as he stalks Duvall up the staircase of the Overlook in that film’s final act holds up as a chilling personification of madness that will stand the test of time. If The Departed is a loaded auto, Nicholson’s role along with Duvall’s spacey dexterity, Lloyd’s kingly wisdom, and Crothers’ sympathy-inducing heroics is a twelve-gage shotgun of acting power.
Advantage: The Shining, 10-9.
It is very difficult to find any real film connoisseur who will attest that Scorsese didn’t deserve an Oscar before The Departed. Merely mention you think this, his only winning effort, is superior to the likes of Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990), and your stock plummets. But to say The Departed is nothing more than a lifetime achievement is a disservice to the film’s stellar writing, performances, and direction. Scorsese works with violence better than any other filmmaker. He knows how to bring the grit and grime of the streets to life, and he knows how to make the bloodletting count for something. His pacing is brisk. His ability to create sympathy and tension for his characters is just as sharp as it ever was. As the 2007 Best Picture Winner, The Departed isn’t just the Academy righting a wrong; it’s a qualified selection for film’s top honor. Hammering home his qualifications, Scorsese zings audiences with a challenging and visceral climax, and then has the balls to stick with his decision and not opt for any cop-out denouement. Such a gutsy film that illustrates his undeniable skill as a director!
Few directors can stand up to Scorsese on a bad day, much less a great one. But with The Shining, Kubrick does just that. This is flawless Kubrick. He worms into human psyche, takes a look around at the things that disturb us, and then forces us to open our eyes and look at those things projected onto a canvas of haunting and perverse imagery. Every choice he makes – casting, writing, editing – is perfect. For King to have said that Kubrick didn’t understand the horror genre makes one question the King of Terror’s own credentials, especially when you consider that the same year he made that assertion, he ran double duty as writer and director for the god-awful Maximum Overdrive. Kubrick gets horror completely. It’s a genre meant to unsettle us, something the director had been doing for years in different genres. Taking those same sensibilities and then applying them to a new genre proves to be just another glorious day at the office for Kubrick. His hallway tracking shot, ethereal use of lighting, and sometimes brutally disturbing cutaway edits are still a great influence on the genre, while a nearly ceaseless supply of haunting sound effects and music increase the dreadful overtones with every frame. That doesn’t even account for the film’s most devious, dark, and disturbing set-piece: the scene in room 237. Lastly, Kubrick’s hedge-maze finale maintains a grip on audience nerves consistent with the rest of the film. The Departed is a solid film, and rightfully deserving of its awards, but The Shining is a horror film so perfect in its execution, it transcends genre completely.
As such, the round goes to Kubrick, 10-8.
Scorsese makes great films. He understands the essence and possibilities of the medium better than any director working today. And truthfully, I prefer his catalog to Kubrick’s challenging, twisted, and sometimes aggravating body of work. But with The Shining, you have a rare lightning-in-a-bottle moment. Nicholson at the top of his game; a solid supporting cast; and some of the most darkly deviant scenes ever put on film. The Departed is a noble achievement and a first-rate knockout artist in most circles, but even the best fall down sometimes. And this is one opponent in a class by itself:
The Shining – TKO