Review written by Nathan Vass
Martin Scorsese’s The Departed isn’t a movie. It’s an animal. It’s a lean, mean, well-oiled machine. From the moment those familiar Scorsesean block letters hit the screen, and The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter starts up, you know you’re going to get what you came for. He’s given us what he’s best at - another breathlessly-paced, hyper-realistic, testosterone-infused, ultra-hip work of art. This is the most exhilarating experience I’ve had at the movies all year.
Mr. Scorsese’s films are usually very character-based, and this one is no exception. However, this film is also very plot oriented, with a strong, engaging story. It follows the pursuits of Billy Costigan (Leo DiCaprio), an undercover cop posing as a mobster, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), an undercover mobster posing as a cop. Unbeknownst to each other, the two are undercover in each other’s respective crews. Gradually, they become aware of each other’s presence, and each is assigned to find the other out. Jack Nicholson plays a monster of a local mob boss, and Mark Wahlberg (who gets the film’s funniest lines, playing practically the only ‘good’ guy), Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, and Ray Winstone fill out the ensemble cast. As many know, The Departed is a remake of the popular Hong-Kong action caper Infernal Affairs, which shares the same basic plot. It’s rather surprising that no one had ever come up with this clever concept until so recently.
Of course, whereas the Hong Kong version was simply an entertaining thriller, Scorsese takes the concept and explores all of its possibilities, piling thematic layers on without ever losing sight of the story. Costigan has spent his life struggling for acceptance, and finds the undercover job a solution, if an unsatisfying one. Sullivan (Damon) is able to integrate himself so skillfully into the cop world that he’s able to sustain a relationship through his false identity. The two get so lost in their worlds that we often have to remind ourselves who these characters really are. Scorsese’s new film isn’t just about the struggle to maintain one’s identity - although it is very much about that - it also explores the theme of sexual repression. Constant verbal references to “homos,” “c*nts,” “pricks,” and the like, not to mention Nicholson’s bizarre antics in a porn theatre, reveal the level of concealed frustration inherent in the professions chosen by these men. It becomes clear just how lonely these people are, and how hard they try to conceal that fact. The dual relationships with Vera Farmiga are fascinating to watch - both men fall for her character, a psychiatrist. Such a development might sound preposterous on paper, but it’s presented in such a straightforward manner that it works. Despite his reputation as a man’s man, Scorsese has always spent lot of time on his women characters (he’s directed nine actresses to Oscar nominations).
All of the classic trademarks of a Scorsese crime picture are here: deep, rich characters, rapid-fire editing, perfectly selected rock tunes, stupefying violence, high-energy pacing, and non-stop profanity. It’s always amazing how fresh his films are, despite legions of imitators and copycats. The reason for this, I think, is because he knows the streets better than any other director alive. Scorsese grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, not as a participant in the criminal activity surrounding him (he is asthmatic), but as an observant. His crime films smack of a reality that just isn’t present in anyone else’s films. It’s his turf. Note how the violence isn’t something that’s built up to- it just explodes, with great suddenness, out of the moment. In this world, people don’t point their gun and recite five-minute monologues. As in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, if somebody wants to shoot someone, they do so immediately and without hesitation. The atmosphere is always tense; characters can, and do, burst into sudden rages in ways only Scorsese would know. It is clear that the situations portrayed are derived from life, not from movies.
The staging of these situations, however, owes much to the great classic films. There is a nice nod to The Third Man, and a certain scene involving a vibrating cell phone and a lot of silence is Hitchcockian in its suspense value. This is Scorsese’s first film to take place in the area of cell phones, and he just about exhausts all their story possibilities. This will be the first Oscar-nominated film to feature text-messaging. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is sharp as a tack - she and Scorsese abandon traditional crosscutting and effortlessly splice together three, sometimes even four scenes at once. Somehow, they manage to juggle all the themes and plotlines and keep everything completely coherent. Scorsese’s editing skills, in my mind, are the best proof of his unofficial status as “America’s greatest living filmmaker.” The dexterity in which he and his editor pile on the shots without ever seeming extraneous is staggering. Each shot supplies new information in the most cinematic way possible, and is onscreen only as long as it needs to be. His camera waits for no man. The 151 minute movie feels like it’s only an hour. There is not an ounce of fat in this picture.
It would seem unfair to single out a particular performance- the all-star cast is uniformly brilliant. Those who accuse DiCaprio of being an amateurish pretty face no longer have an excuse to do so. In his third outing with close friend Scorsese, he delivers another powerhouse performance. It is interesting to note the increase in his abilities with each consecutive Scorsese film. His ability to give the impression of thinking and reacting to situations is uncanny, and particularly exciting to watch in this film - Nicholson often threw improvised lines at actors on this set. DiCaprio’s reaction when Nicholson says the unexpected line, “I smell a rat,” is real. Damon exudes a subtle menace as the undercover gangster. He is so convincing as a cop that it’s easy to forget his character’s true identity. The Damon and DiCaprio roles are dreams come true for actors - they require the actor to play someone who’s pretending to be someone else, with the stakes as high as possible. Interestingly, after The Bourne Supremacy, Damon swore he was going to take a long break from acting, “unless Scorsese calls me-” which, oddly enough, is exactly what ended up happening. His understated performance is a counterpoint to Nicholson’s outrageous, seething depiction of pure evil. This is the “Jack” persona taken in a new direction to a delicious extreme. He is an unpredictable force of nature, and a joy to watch.
In the end, superlatives do not do this film justice. Like Goodfellas and Casino, it’s an adrenaline rush to experience this film - a sensory assault overload. Music pulsates under nearly every scene, while Bill Monohan’s labyrinthine script pushes the plot forward, escalating the tension gradually until breaking point. It should also be noted that the film is quite funny in its own morbid way - Nicholson’s absurd line of advice to the Chinese about “nuking Taiwan sometime this century” brought the house down. As stated above, the film is absolutely rock solid in every respect. It manages to be wildly entertaining in addition to having a depth that rewards multiple viewings. Folks, this is one of the great ones. It isn’t just a good movie, or even a great one- it’s beyond that. This is Martin Scorsese at the absolute top of his game. Don’t miss that.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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