The best thing I can say about Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is that I left the theatre with that uncontrollable smile, that really jazzed feeling you get after seeing a movie that’s firing on all cylinders. One that you know is really good half-way through, and you still know it’s good two hours or two days after its over. I most distinctly remember feeling that way about The Usual Suspects the first time I saw it, and for everything except maybe the last two minutes (the last two minutes of Suspects is hard to top), Departed is a better movie. Hats off to Marty for crafting such a kinetic, superbly entertaining movie. If this is his year for the Oscar (and it almost surely is), then he deserves it on the merits of this film alone, and not just for everything he’s done up to now, which would have been the case had he taken it for The Aviator or Gangs of New York.
Of course, we all know he should have won for Raging Bull instead of Redford for Ordinary People, but as fellow blogger Jeffrey Wells once put it, that doesn’t mean you give him an “I’m sorry we screwed up,” Oscar for a pic that doesn’t deserve it. I believe he compared it to giving Hitchcock the Oscar for Torn Curtain, and he’s right.
But with The Departed, he’s genuinely earned it. The film is adapted from a Japanese crime film called Infernal Affairs, which I haven’t seen but have heard is also very good. Still, it’s amazing that William Monahan’s script could transplant this story from Hong Kong and make it feel so completely rooted in Boston’s Irish-Catholic roots. That element alone separates this from Scorsese’s other mob movies and gives it a pulse all its own.
The story follows two moles: Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan, a young boy seduced by the power of mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) who joins the state police, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan, a good kid from a bad family who joins the force only to be put undercover in Costello’s gang. Among the things the two have in common, besides their double lives, is Madolyn (well played by Vera Farmiga), a psychiatrist who treats them both (though unaware that Billy is undercover) and winds up seriously involved with Sullivan, but only casually with Billy. Before long, that cat and mouse game between the two heats up, culminating in a brilliant moment when Sullivan gets Billy’s number and calls him, and for several breathless beats each stays on the phone waiting for the other to say something, each suspecting the truth about the person on the other end.
To say much more about the story would give too much away for anyone who hasn’t seen it, and if you’re one of those people, run- don’t walk- to the nearest theatre still showing it, because it’s worth seeing on the big screen. Truly, Scorsese is at the top of his game here. I have no doubt that his artistic influences vary between his childhood in New York and his Catholic upbringing, and he’s expressed many of those influences in many films, but it’s wrong for him to deny that his true oeuvre is the modern gangster picture (Coppola still takes the cake for period gangster movies, and probably always will). After trying to make an artistically relevant film with The Aviator, Departed feels like the director’s sigh of relief. Freed from the constraints of trying to make a great movie, he lets his camera- and the blood- fly, and the result is a great movie that feels totally natural and effortless.
I can’t say enough about the energy of the film, which is due in no small part to Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing. At 67, Scorcese’s long-time editor (the two starting working together on Raging Bull) feels just as reenrgized as he does. Between them they’ve constructed the film with that perfect Eisenstein-ian balance of cutting between different images to create an emotional effect on the audience, sometimes out of sequence, as well as to create tension. It’s the way an Oliver Stone movie would look if he wasn’t tweaking on something (God alone knows what) all the time. Even though she’s already got two statues, Thelma deserves one this year just as much as he does.
And the acting, every single performance, is superb. Monahan’s script is full of gritty, bristling dialogue that is often quite funny (Alec Baldwin in particular has several priceless lines), if profanity-laden. Some have complained that Jack Nicholson is actually the weak link here, going too far over the top and generally doing his ‘Jack’ thing, but for the most part I thought he played it pretty well, although his Boston accent was uneven enough to pull me out of the film from time to time. Whalberg got the film’s only acting nomination, and he is terrific, as is Damon. But the real revelation here is DiCaprio. He’s been impressive before, to be sure, but biopics and retarded characters are the kind of showy roles that are meant to be impressive. This is not that kind of role, but that doesn’t stop him from creating the most physical, fleshed out performance of his career. I think Manhola Dargis put it best in her New York Times review when she said that watching him in The Departed, for the first time we see in him what Scorsese must have seen all along.
So with everything that’s right about this movie, what puts it in the middle of the Best Picture pack? Well, for one thing, as great as most of the movie is, it’s not perfect. Without giving too much away, I definitely felt that there were at least one and maybe two too many twists near the end that weren’t set up by the script. There are also some weird references to Sullivan having a sexual problem that might just be there to inform the character a little more, but it felt out of place to me. But the biggest slight against it as far as Oscars go is that it doesn’t really speak to any larger theme, or at least nothing with the kind of ‘significance’ that, say, Babel or Letters from Iwo Jima brings to the table. And some members may feel that the Director Oscar is enough, and until we invent a time machine so we can go back to the ’80 Oscars and fix that Raging Bull mistake, I, for one, agree with them.