Monday, October 09, 2006

In Theaters: The Departed

[Image from Empire]

There may not be a filmmaker working today with the degree of absolute passion for film possessed by Martin Scorcese. In his fifth decade as a filmmaker, Scorcese has the skill of an old master but the energy of a twenty-something film school graduate handed a camera and a stipend. THE DEPARTED is being lauded as a return to form, but speaking as someone who considers both GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR as gloriously exciting and alive spectacles, I don't know what they're on about. Nonetheless, THE DEPARTED is a minor masterpiece; a raw and brutal thriller marked by great performances, grim humor and unceasing momentum. I admit to not having seen INFERNAL AFFAIRS, the Hong Kong police thriller of which this is a remake, so I can't compare the two, but I'm sure someone else can. I'm just here to rave.

THE DEPARTED follows the stories of Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), two young men who grew up in Boston and went into law enforcement. Sullivan becomes a plainclothes detective the instant he graduates from the academy, possibly due to some undue influence by local gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), for whom Sullivan has been working since he was a kid. Costello's been a thorn in Boston law enforcement's side for many a year, and Sullivan is assigned to the Special Investigation Unit's ongoing probe of the man he works for. Meanwhile, Costigan, despite graduating with many qualifications, is kept out of SIU due to psychological issues and a family past best described as "colorful" (local prejudices seem to play a role as well.) Instead he's offered a below-the-table job, infiltrating Costello's gang and acting as an informant. Officially he is not an officer, and his file is kept under electronic lock and key. He reports only to the chief and police commissioner.

Costigan slides into Costello's organization naturally enough, and earns the (relative) trust of the eccentric crime lord. But Sullivan knows the police are stepping up an investigation and that they have a man on the inside, and informs Costello, who naturally is interested in finding out who the rat might be. Officially the police aren't going to tell Sullivan who their man is, so he does some investigating himself. And before long the police realize that they, too, have a traitor in their midst, but again, nobody can be sure.

From this elegant structure flows a wealth of subtext and characterization. William Monahan, the screenwriter, knows he has a good set-up and doesn't pile on unnecessary twists or pointless shocks. Everything happens for a reason, and it unfolds in an increasingly tragic spiral, as Costigan and Sullivan find themselves trapped in their illusions. But then, almost everyone in this film has a secret to keep, some less mundane than others.

Leonardo DiCaprio, meanwhile, turns in what may be his best work to date, with an intense, fiery performance that gives the film much of its drive. He dominates in a film loaded with great performances. Nicholson's crime boss is both steely and slightly unhinged, and though there are some of the familiar Nicholson tics, they enhance rather than overwhelm the character. Damon's Sullivan is the most seemingly stable, the one with the highest comfort zone, but as things continue to wind downwards you see the cold determination that drives him to try to escape, to survive, to win. He is nicely counterbalanced by Vera Farmiga as Madolyn, a police psychiatrist who, despite seeming fairly levelheaded and secure, skirts the bounds of professional ethics by sleeping with both Sullivan and Costigan. Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen also form a brilliant duo as the two high ranking police officials (at present I'm fuzzy on their exact positions, and IMDB is not helping) who own Costigan's identity. Alec Baldwin contributes an interesting near-comic performance as the head of SIU, while comic actor Anthony Anderson impresses in a rare serious role.

The film possesses a blend of dark humor and truly gut-wrenching violence that fits the cynicism of its subject matter. Every punch, every gunshot seems expertly timed to make the viewer feel just a little bit more nervous; you don't know when the next one is going to come and you dread its arrival. The movie's Boston atmosphere is expertly created, especially considering it was mostly filmed in New York. And of course, since this is a Scorcese picture, the music is excellent. (An interesting psuedo-cover of "Comfortably Numb" is used particularly well.) It looks beautiful (in its squalid way), it sounds beautiful (ditto), it's a sumptuous film. It seems Scorcese can't make even the darkest, grimmest film without expressing some of the joy of film itself.

And why not? One may not necessarily feel good coming out of THE DEPARTED, but it does pack a punch, and that impact comes from the energy that dances around every shot. This is a picture that, at once, feels both carefully and intelligently crafted, and wildly spontaneous and completely unpredictable. These characters can't even be sure of who they are, let alone what's going to happen to them; there's no real safety for anyone. And so we cannot but sit and wonder how it will all end. As thoughtful and literate and slick as THE DEPARTED is, at heart it is nothing less than a terrific entertainment.


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