The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, November 11, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Departed

Full review behind the jump

The Departed

: Martin Scorsese
: William Monahan, based on the film Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau and Siu Fai Mak, written by Siu Fai Mak and Felix Chong
: Martin Scorsese, Brad Pitt, Brad Grey, Graham King
: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Corrigan, James Badge Dale

The circle is complete now. Cop becomes crook, crook becomes cop, and the two perform their death dance. And Martin Scorsese, the prodigy of the rebel 70’s who put the
Mean Streets on screen has fully merged with Martin Scorsese, craftsman and elder statesman of a Hollywood he transformed. It’s too early to judge if The Departed, his epic remake of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs trilogy, is his best film, but it is perhaps as complete and coherent a summary expression of “Scorsese cinema” that could be in a single movie, and that is an awesome thing.

It has the flair, color, and fascination with the tortured male psyche that first catapulted him into prominence. But it’s also sage and reflective, the result of a wizened eye peering deeper into a story than its younger self could have seen, and consciously understanding the emotional damage of its characters. It’s even a bit sloppy here, a bit familiar there, the symptoms of a relentless perfectionist tinkerer letting movies escape into the public unripened. That we know the Scorsese soundtrack so well by now –
Gimme Shelter has become his unofficial theme song for the dread of coming violence, and it re-surfaces here – is part of the fabric of this movie, both a point against its freshness and a point for its director’s impact on the use of popular music in film.

What it does do is tell one corker of a story, one whose screw can’t seem to stop turning as revelation tops betrayal tops reversal of fortune. I can’t remember the last time I felt more uncertain of where I was headed, while simultaneously being aware that the storytellers’ grip was confident, the road ahead clear to them. There’s even a vein of impishness hiding inside all the other tones of the film – it’s delighting about what it’s going to spring on us next. Perhaps it’s taken this long for Scorsese to finally, truly, enjoy himself.

The plot is like a funhouse hall of cracked mirrors – every gesture has its distorted echo somewhere. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a rookie cop with brains, a temper and a family tree full of the poor and criminal. It’s the sort of biography that might belong to a young man who could lose his badge, go to prison on an assault charge, then end up back in his old neighborhood hustling drugs and picking fights. And that’s exactly what undercover bureau chief Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) suggests he do, so he can infiltrate the gang of Boston underworld boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).

Costello is an animal in the truest definition – driven by appetite and instinct, no regard for anyone in his way, but knowledgeable about how to survive, and not without charisma. He looks like someone who is only occasionally conscious of what he is doing, so urgent are his primal behaviors. Occasionally he’ll doodle amazing things on placemats, then destroy them or throw them away, like his dominant side can’t comprehend what they represent and hates them for that. Nicholson has a high old time creating the character of Costello, a grinning sociopath always sauntering into rooms wearing evidence that he was doing something nasty somewhere else.

But he’s clever enough to have enthralled a young neighborhood kid named Colin Sullivan, taken him under his wing, and then encouraged him as a grown-up (played by Matt Damon) towards a sterling career in the police department. There he will gravitate towards the organized crime division and see that it is successful at everything except arresting Frank Costello.

Each side thus has a mole who spends most of the time being the thing that they hate. How much blood is it okay for Costigan to shed? How many nibbles can Sullivan’s squad take at Costello’s operation while avoiding the primary target? In a marvelous twist, both end up seeing the same psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga) – Sullivan romantically, Costigan as part of his parole agreement. Each must portray to her a complex lie that threatens to become the truth – at one point she tells Costigan “Your vulnerability is really freaking me out right now. Is it real?” He realizes that the only answer he has is “I don’t know.

In an even more marvelous twist, the two moles soon find that their primary task is to smoke out the other. DiCaprio and Damon are two of the most talented stars of their generation, and each has the space to fill out the people they portray – Costigan the do-gooder drowning in his own masochism, Sullivan the coward who believes that he can make everything okay if people will just trust that he’s smarter than they are.

This movie is about Boston, and the Irish, and fathers and sons, both real and adoptive. And yet here is our “good” father figure, Queenan, sending young Costigan to Costello, and yes, feeling sorrowful about it, but not letting him stop. It is a titanic achievement by screenwriter William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) to tie threads of loyalty into such Gordian knots, to keep the audience at constant imbalance, and all throughout to demonstrate the kind of doggerel wit that we haven’t heard since, well, Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

The supporting cast thrives with it. Hard-faced British character actor Ray Winstone makes a fine loyal thug to Costello in the role of Mr. French. Alec Baldwin ratchets macho insensitivity up to dizzying heights as FBI agent Ellerby, and his ability to verbally challenge your manhood is only surpassed by Queenan’s right-hand man Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). To say Dignam’s default mode is to make you as angry as you’ve ever been at a human is to imply that he has another mode – he doesn’t, and yet in many ways he is the most honest, dedicated, even heroic character in the film. Wahlberg talks like a master pugilist, pummeling every soft spot your ego has, and every other spot for good measure, it’s a career-best performance that deserves award consideration.

Sometimes the camera will lurch towards a vintage Scorsese gesture like one of his rapid close-ups. But it often cuts away before the flourish really takes hold, you can almost sense the elder filmmaker deciding to sit back and appreciate the twisted tale he gets to share with us. To laugh about it, even. Only the Scorsese of today could have made The Departed the triumph that it is, but only the reputation forged by Scorsese the younger could have brought Hollywood’s finest, young and old, together to understand and support his vision. This is one of the year’s best films.


  • extremely good review

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:54 PM  

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