by Justin Stewart
Dir. Martin Scorsese, U.S., Warner Bros.
Our sellout Saturday night crowd at the midtown Manhattan multiplex couldn't even wait for the screen to go black to erupt into unanimous applause. It was the most thoroughly “taken for a ride” bunch I've ever been a part of. Satisfied and grinning dopily, one and all, these were several dozen movie watchers who hadn’t truly been high on cinema for much too long. The Departed doesn't invite outbursts, it seizes them. The applause wasn’t the first interaction between movie and viewer—the unspeakable violence, the tension-smashing twists, the compassion and, especially, humor of the writing and performances throughout compels, horrifies, and awes with a grace so expert that gasps, laughs, and even shouted exclamations escape involuntarily. If popularity were a surefire barometer of quality, as on IMDB's charming Top Films list, I'd put early money on The Departed as a top ten threat based solely on my two weekend viewings. (Is Shawshank still number one? I haven't checked in awhile.) As one of the applauders, I can't take issue with popular opinion; The Departed is extraordinarily good.
The boobs crowning it a “return to form,” however, can kindly get slapped. To frame it thus necessarily involves shaving Martin Scorsese’s successes down to his gangster pictures, and assuming that he's somehow been off-track since, what, Casino? Or was Bringing Out the Dead “vintage” Marty? For undoubting champions, like me, of both Gangs of New York and The Aviator, The Departed is but another triumph in the director's remarkable mid-late career hot streak. There is nothing outright "better" about The Departed, and for richness of themes and width of scope, The Aviator has it topped. Still, if your favorite Scorsese is Goodfellas and you found The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun too "deserty" and The Age of Innocence too powdery, it's quite safe to say you'll dig The Departed. None of which is to imply that The Departed is the slightest bit vacuous or auto-piloted. The cast and crew's love for their material seethes through every frame, unlike in the only Scorsese film I would call work-for-hire (the bleary The Color of Money).
If not a return to form, The Departed is definitely a return to the subject of gangster violence lovingly commemorated and indicted in Goodfellas and Casino. This much is clear from the first shots (grainy video of Boston street fights, “some years ago”), and the first of the soundtrack's many classic rock songs, “Gimme Shelter,” used in both of those previous films. This edition’s Jimmy the Gent/Ace Rothstein is Jack Nicholson's loopy, racist, wisecracking Frank Costello, whose first scene has him hitting on a storeowner’s teen daughter and handing her some money (“Go buy yourself some makeup”). In the same scene, he takes under his wing the boy who will grow up to be his primary rat within the Boston police force, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Costello is the movie's gruesome soul, but its primary focus is on his two relationships, one with Sullivan and the other with Leonardo DiCaprio's Billy Costigan, a former state police officer sent undercover into Costello's destructive, powerful crime ring. Following the actions of both moles, we meet crusaders and conspirators on both sides of the law, including nihilistic Costello henchman Mr. French (Ray Winstone) and noble-minded, smart-mouthed cops like Mark Wahlberg’s Sergeant Dignam and Alec Baldwin’s Captain Ellerby, whose driving mission is to take down the murderous syndicate. The plotting alone is ingenious—with not one but two infiltrators in constant danger of a violent unveiling, everything (the tension, the trickery, the “stakes”) is doubled. Cell phones, forever being whipped out with the shhhingg! sound of a switchblade, are the primary weapon of choice, which keeps things moment-to-moment as the movie snakes its way towards its outrageous, excruciatingly shocking final act with the kind of economy and pace found only in the best action movies.
Not to be overlooked in talk of The Departed's suspense and violence is how incredibly funny it is. Screenwriter William Monahan knows that arrogance and a deprecating sense of humor matter just as much as the size of your gun in the macho world of cops and the mafia, and the characters are well-armed. In an environment where you'll never hear “thank you,” but “fuck yourself” flies off the wall every five minutes, arch cynics thrive. “Maybe yes. Maybe no. Maybe go fuck yourself,” intones Dignam at a briefing. A giddy Ellerby to Sullivan: “I'm gonna go have a cigarette. You want a cigarette? What are you, one of those fitness freaks? Yeah? Go fuck yourself.” It doesn't hurt that The Departed boasts one of the most spot-on (mostly male) casts in memory. Baldwin, whose every small gesture, like a crotch grab, a sip from a Bud can, or a facial dip into an ice bath, is an expected “lol” factory. With two consecutive roles, one can only pray he'll become a Scorsese fixture. Real-life Boston “Southie” Wahlberg proves that his daffy turn in I Heart Huckabees (one of the few redeeming values of that mess) was on par for him—his righteous, scathing Dignam is one of the movie's prime delights.
Nicholson makes his role very much his own with some weird, weird choices: More disturbing than the black dildo he whips out at a porno house are his rambling, disconnected interrogations during the restaurant scene in which he tries to (literally) sniff out Costigan's loyalties. If leading a double life leads to inevitable insanity, Costello is the living, breathing, murdering, mascara-dabbling, John Lennon-quoting embodiment of the final outcome. DiCaprio's portrait of mental meltdown is harrowing, but it's Damon who gives the movie's strongest performance. A lethal scumbag of an even higher order than his Tom Ripley, his criminal encoding is so deep that it's fascinating to watch his survival instinct take priority in all his interactions. His remorseless eyes are always scanning around the room for an exit, an escape, an opportunity to keep his lie alive. When he's reduced to whimpering, acquiescent tears at one point, it's an explosive release of years of meticulous fakery.
The Departed is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, directed by Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak. While it's true that the new movie improves upon its far more amateurish, far less coherent predecessor, the point isn't really relevant. It's enough that the original provided most of the canny structural scaffolding (and an attractive turn by Tony Leung in the DiCaprio role). If it seems less impressive to anyone that Scorsese’s source this time around is a four-year-old movie rather than, say, a Nicholas Pileggi book, it's worth noting that the stylistic lexicon from which Infernal Affairs drew was written largely by Martin Scorsese. In fact, in the look and feel of its marshes and dingy poolrooms, The Departed resembles the even more recent Mystic River—beyond similar accents, you can feel and smell the stickiness of the weeks-old spilled bourbon clinging to the wood in the bar scenes.
Co-producer Graham King, who also produced Gangs and The Aviator, recently said something to the effect that they were “going for money,” supposedly as opposed to artistry, with The Departed. Whether that was the intention or not, the movie's achievements on nearly ever conceivable level certainly warrant it any of the fruits it may or may not receive, and if my opening weekend experiences were any indication, it's a “smash.” Slicker and less messy, (though not, I repeat, better), than his past two films, The Departed proves that Scorsese remains in peerless stride. Is it laying it on too thick to throw in a meaningless pull quote? Doesn’t matter: Another movie, another home run for the ages.
Read the Reverse Shot of The Departed here