Monday, February 19, 2007

The Departed

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone
Running Time: 152 min.

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

There's been a lot of talk lately about where The Departed stands in the pantheon of legendary Martin Scorsese pictures. I never considered myself a huge Scorsese fan so this concerns me very little. His films are always expertly made and technically brilliant, but for some reason have always failed to connect with me on a personal level the way the Kubrick or even Spielberg could. It could be because nearly all of his movies center around organized crime, family, and betrayal that it seems like he's making a different version of the same film every time out.

They're all fantastic, but you can't help but get the feeling you know what to expect when Scorsese is behind the lens. When he tried to stretch a little bit with The Gangs of New York and The Aviator it was met with tepid reception, if not from critics, then from audiences who wanted their old Marty back. They were right but while both films were overlong and tedious, no one could say they weren't interesting.

With The Departed, a remake of the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, they have him back. He's at the top of his game and has made his most exciting, audience friendly picture yet. I can honestly say, of all of Scorsese's films, I had the most fun watching this one, and if I had to, would rank it ahead of many of his others. It also features some of America's best actors giving the performances of their careers. Like most Scorsese films, I can't promise you it'll stay with me forever, but for it's entire two and a half hour running time it had me captivated and on the edge of my seat. That counts for something.

Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Frank Sullivan (Matt Damon) both grew up on the rough streets of Boston with the goal of becoming a police officer. Scorsese shows us, within minutes of the picture, the different paths they take to get there and sets the stage for one of the most fascinating battles between good and evil seen recently in films. Costigan, who has a checkered past and virtually no family left, enrolls in the Boston police academy with the hope of becoming a state trooper while Sullivan joins as a mole to provide inside information to crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), who's been a father figure to him since his youth.

Immediately Costigan is tapped for a deadly assignment by Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (an inexplicably Oscar nominated Mark Wahlberg). He must infiltrate Costello's inner circle and leak information back to the cops so they can finally get something on him. Meanwhile Sullivan, who's quickly becoming the department's golden boy, is feeding police dirt back to Costello. Each are aware of the other's existence but not their identities. Complicating matters further is that both men are also, unbeknownst to one another, in love with the same woman (a psychiatrist played by Vera Farmiga).

A cat and mouse game boils throughout the film as Costigan and Sullivan come closer and closer to discovering who each other is and Costigan is always seconds away from being discovered by Costello as the mole. Every moment he's in the presence of the volatile, unhinged Costello he knows the next breath he takes could very well be his last. The tension this creates is palpable and cuts like a knife through the motion picture. At times it's as unbearable for us as it is for Costigan. Over the course of two hours, every scene, every moment and every action is building toward the inevitable confrontation between Sullivan and Costigan and the possibilty that Costello will discover Costigan's true allegiance. There are twists and turns and if you, like me, haven't seen the Infernal Affairs trilogy this is based on, you're in for some serious surprises. I've never seen a Scorsese film where the stakes were this high and believe me the actors sell all of it with everything they have.

What works best about The Departed is that everything isn't really black and white or simply about good and evil. It cuts deeper than that. Sullivan's a crooked cop feeding information to a mob boss, but he's humanized by the fact that he's really just a product of his environment. In one of the first scenes in the film we flash back to his first encounter with a young Sullivan in a diner. We see a confused little boy being taken in by a guy who really on the surface would seem to a kid to be really cool. He's charismatic, funny and generous. He just happens to kill people. Sullivan shows loyalty to the one man who would give him the time of day. What's so bad about that? It's only as the story progresses that we realize that loyality comes at the expense of his own integrity and self worth as a human being.

Throughout the film Damon has this vacant look on his face and a cold emotionless demeanor that shows us it's not even registering anywhere inside him what he's doing. No matter how bad things get he never panics and remains steadfast in his loyalty to Costello. It's scary. DiCaprio has a tough job here because he really has to give two performances. One as the screw up from the wrong side of the tracks who can't pass his police exam and the other as a terrified undercover cop who must pretend to be brave or he's dead. He has to make us feel his fear and nervousness but make us sure Costello can't. He has to give a performance playing a character who's giving a performance. How hard is that?

For a long time DiCaprio struggled to find roles that properly showcased how strong an actor he is. For a while he was pigeonholed by his youthful appearance and not taken seriously. In recent years he's done a lot to correct that image and could easily qualify as one of the best we have right now. No role has ever fit him better than this as he owns every scene and is the timebomb that makes the story tick. I think as time passes people will better appreciate the work he's done as an actor and he'll be remembered as one of the greats. And to think he's barely over thirty and his best work could be ahead.

Nicholson fans will not be dissapointed with his "should have been nominated" performance as Frank Costello. He manages to be vile, sadistic, giving, funny and dangerous all at once. This isn't just Jack hamming it up like we've been used to. He's playing a tortured soul with real motivations and it's one of his most entertaining performances (which covers a lot of ground). I have no idea why Mark Wahlberg was nominated for Best Supporting Actor over Nicholson. As a tough talking, sarcastic Boston Sergeant he pops in for a few scenes, yells and curses a lot and then leaves. Then he pops in to do it again. He nails the character and does a good job in a small, insignificant role, but it's hardly Oscar worthy. In fact I enjoyed the more subtle work of Martin Sheen as the Captain who becomes a father figure to Costigan and Alec Baldwin as the head of the task force assigned to take down Costello. Vera Farmiga (who I've never seen before this) also turns in solid, interesting work as the love interest.

I understand a lot of people had a problem with the ending of this film. I didn't. Let's just say when your movie is called The Departed there's a pretty good chance a lot of the characters are going to die. Was there one death too many? Perhaps, but I didn't feel it stretched credibility in the least given the course of events and it kept in tone with the gritty, realistic nature of the film. I thought the ending was effective and worked on the levels was intended given the story. Scorsese leaves his comfort zone a little on this film as he trades in the streets of New York for Boston and the change of location is a welcome one (even if it was mostly shot in New York it feels like Boston, which is all that matters).

Like most Scorsese pictures the soundtrack is a character and he always knows just where to sprinkle the song to get the desired impact. Here we're treated to The Rolling Stones (a Scorsese favorite), Van Morrison and Dropkick Murphy's. Even if Scorsese's work may seem repetitive at times it's tough to fault a director for making films about topics he's passionate about, especially when they're done this well. I think even Scorsese's biggest fans would be surprised how consistently entertaining this movie is and how fast it flies by.

The dangerous, heart-pounding game between the two main characters and the visceral energy DiCaprio and Damon infuse in them is where the meat of the film lies, making it one of Scorsese's most psychologically complex works. This is a movie about choices. Both good and bad. The Departed isn't a masterpiece but's it a solid four-star movie worthy of it's Best Picture nomination. It should earn its director a very well deserved and long overdue gold statue on his mantle.

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