The Departed

Contrary to the raves and plaudits now making the rounds, The Departed is not a Martin Scorsese masterpiece, but of the so-called Leo Trio (The Gangs of New York and The Aviator being the first two installments of Scorsese’s Faustian deal with the studios), it is the most satisfying and truest Scorsese picture of the bunch. It’s telling that a slightly lesser Scorsese mob film, sizzling with the kind of punch and life that few contemporary films seem capable of these days, stands so distinguished against its multiplex brethren. And this probably answers Kevin’s bemusement over why so many critics have hailed The Departed as the cat’s pajamas.

the_departed-1.jpgMake no mistake: this is an intelligent and engaging two and a half hour crime caper. It delivers the goods. It’s a grand kick to see Scorsese return to film with a playful ferocity. Scorsese is very much in his element here, layering his visuals with the kind of crackling detail often overlooked by today’s emerging filmmakers. Everything from the dollops of sweat congealing on Alec Baldwin’s shirt to the lowered pistol position on Mark Wahlberg’s belt has been carefully decided upon. Scorsese makes Boston his own, opting for cool blues and greens juxtaposed against a feeling of urban decay lurking beneath the antiseptic steel of upper-class life. It’s an interesting riff on Tom Stern’s use of color in Mystic River. Only Scorsese’s long-time cinematographer Michael Ballhaus could have pulled off an homage that felt so fresh.

The great surprise is that Leo actually acts in this one. Whether this is because Scorsese has, after three films, finally figured out how to manage Leo or because Scorsese cast Bostonians Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg in an effort to get Leo to up his game is anyone’s guess. But Leo achieves a vulnerability here that recalls the Leo of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries that I suspect we won’t be seeing again in some years, particularly when he’s now being asked to don an unconvincing South African dialect for the upcoming Blood Diamond.

Matt Damon is, at long last, coming into his own as an actor. Like his role in Syriana, Damon plays another charming golden boy gone horribly askew. Damon has a screen quality which suggests a 1980s-era Michael Douglas in the making: the man who you can still empathize with even when his sleazy qualities come to the surface. In Scorsese’s hands, Colin Sullivan, the seemingly spotless state police officer seduced by betrayal, still keeps his cards close to his chest. Even in the film’s finale, we don’t quite know the full level of self-betrayal that this man is contending with. Even his attempt to pet a dog is fraught with meaning.

Scorsese keeps the pace going at a steady clip. The film moves so fast that it’s easy to overlook such preposterous plot elements such as the state police refusing to pull an officer off an investigation when a major figure is killed or the troublingly inconsistent behavior of Vera Farmiga’s psychiatrist. (Farmiga is very good in her role, but her presence here seems to be more “Oh shit! We have too many guys in this film! We need a token chick!”)

I should note that I haven’t seen Infernal Affairs, the film that The Departed is based on. So I have no basis for comparison. But I’d argue that The Departed serves, in part, as Scorsese’s response to Quentin Tarantino, a grand master both saluting his followers while schooling him for his puerile indiscretions. Consider the mysterious box that Matt Damon holds at the beginning, reminiscent of the mysterious suitcase in Pulp Fiction. Or the way Martin Sheen invites Leo into his home for leftover supper in answer to the half-hearted domesticity seen in the Kill Bill movies. Consider also the nuanced cartoonish nature of The Departed‘s violence, where characters are massacred in over-the-top but absolutely fitting ways, reminiscent of Peckinpah’s artistic balance, rather than Kill Bill‘s grindhouse excess.

On this latter point, I should observe that film geeks often forget that Scorsese has an almost absurdist relationship with violence in his films, starting from his student film The Big Shave and carrying on to such grandiose heights as Bringing Out the Dead (a film which I will confess I misread on my first viewing, only to discover that movie’s almost Moliere-like approach to the “New York as hell” metaphor). From the moment that Leo deals with the “men from Providence” shortly after finishing up some pasta, I was seduced by The Departed. It is violence that triggers the cracks of the film’s two central characters, much as it reveals the class-based chasms of the world around them. (How does Damon secure a capacious apartment with a “co-signer” anyhow? I think the answer’s in that box.)

I’ve made no mention of Nicholson, but I would contend that had De Niro occupied the role of Costello, the film could have easily dwindled into camp. And while this film needed a superstar heavy, I was more interested in Leo and Damon.

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13 Comments

  1. I agree with most of what you said, but a couple of comments. First, I can’t believe you didn’t think Leo wasn’t acting in The Aviator, I thought he was excellent in that movie! Gangs of New York I’ll give you, but I thought Leo was excellent in The Aviator.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the film but also noticed the plot holes that you mentioned and personally was very disappointed in the ending. I’m not bothered by What happened in the ending buy How. It all seemed a bit convenient and not well plotted out. Puh-lease, the whole elevator scene made me roll my eyes bit time. And totally agreed, the chic’s role in this film was so weak that she annoyed the crap out of me. And I think she was very underdeveloped and just stuck in there so this film wasn’t completely a man’s man film with violence, etc. Gotta throw in the love story to satisfy the ladies, right? Wrong, it was horrible and I’d rather have done without her in it.

  2. I was finally glad to see a film with Nicholson where he wasn’t the main focus. I’ve hated his last few films where he’s become a caricature of his own movie persona. All in all though, I thought the Departed excellent, even with the borderline Bostonaccents (the girlfriend’s accent sucked).

    There was a woman freaking out at the end during the elevator scene behind me. That’s what I kept hearing about the film—that it was quite violent. Sure that ending has some very in your face violence (no pun intended), but I didn’t see it any more violent than other films or television for that matter.

  3. ummm…in Blood Diamond Leo plays a South African, not Australian, and his Boer accent is pretty good to my ear.

  4. I’m absolutely baffled that DiCaprio’s been getting all the attention when, to my sensibilities, Damon’s performance was a good ten times better. So subtle and nuanced, you could spend hours analyzing that character. Don’t get me wrong, this was certainly Leo’s best performance since, what, Basketball Diaries? But in my opinion Damon stole the show. Totally.

  5. The Departed was entertaining, but not among Scorcese’s best. I did like the setting and that great aggressive Irish shouting/music. As for DiCaprio … when I first saw Gilbert Grape and the Basketball Diaries, I thought di Caprio was the best young actor to come along in an age … and then, picture by picture, he self-destructed right before our very eyes. He’s better in this one than he’s been for a while, but is it because he finally looks like a grown-up, playing a grown-up? He has physical heft now, so the anguished brow (which is his look through 90% of this movie) is a nice contrast. Nicholson just escaped being a caricature … just. Damon was good. Wahlberg was good. The girl was negligible.

    The Wire has it all over these recent crime movies. Christ, I feel silly saying so (bc no matter what HBO claimes, it IS TV), but there it is.

  6. Excellent review (although I’m with Karen on The Wire…I recently caught the rest of Season 4 vis a vis certain underhanded methods, and it is absolutely devastating.)

  7. snippet from The Balboa (in SF) theater’s newsletter:

    THIS WEEK AT THE BALBOA
    Two years ago, after nearly a year of begging, pleading and pushing Miramax, they agreed to let us premiere the knockout Hong Kong thriller, INFERNAL AFFAIRS. It was a great hit for us. No U.S. distributor owned its two sequels and I started writing the sales agents, Media Asia in Hong Kong. Noresponses. In Cannes last year I found their salesman. He told me they couldn’t let us play INFERNAL AFFAIRS II and III because of an American remake being made by Martin Scorsese.

    Now the remake has opened to great critical success and it going to be the biggest box office hit in Scorsese’s career. Many of you have requested that we show THE DEPARTED so that we have been able to program it starting this week. We are working on INFERNAL AFFAIRS I for special showings next week.

  8. why am I hearing negative reviews because of the ending? what did I miss?
    Was wahlberg’s character a cop or on the mobs payroll? Please enlighten me.

  9. The gun Leo used in Blood Diamond is a 9mm Heckler and Koch USP compact.
    I thought at first glance that it was a Glock19…but freezing the motion on the DVD
    of that movie unmistakbly revealed it to be an HK USP compact 9mm.

  10. Scorcese is at his best and truly deserves Oscar for this film. Also notable are the performances of Matt Damon (such a great “bad-guy;” he really must do stuff like this more often), Leo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson (as always), and Mark Wahlberg (best since Rockstar). However, some in the theater with me who had seen Infernal Affairs did say that Departed did not live up to the original.

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