Monday, October 09, 2006

Film Review: Scorsese Returns To The Crime Genre With The Brilliant DEPARTED

I know, I know! I promised this review would be up last night (As I'm sure my many loyal readers read in my last posting *cricket cricket*), but some films need time to digest. Especially a film as brilliant and exhilarating as Martin Scorsese's The Departed!

Seeing The Departed is like watching a really fascinating teacher showing a class how to do something properly. In this case, Martin Scorsese, having avoided the crime genre since 1995's Casino, seems to have taken stock of what so many directors have screwed up and decided to show 'em once more how it's done.

In The Departed, Scorsese introduces us to two Boston State Police officers. The first, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is deep undercover, having infiltrated local kingpin Frank Costello's (Jack Nicholson) inner sanctum. Costigan, forced to rely on sheer smarts and street sense, is only known of by two superiors: the gung-ho Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and the fatherly Queenan (Martin Sheen). The second officer, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), is also undercover. Sullivan is working for Costello as a mole within the police department. As neither man knows the other's identity, the film expertly details their individual attempts to expose the other as well as the police department's attempts to snuff out Costello's crime ring.

Giving a synopsis of The Departed only takes away from the richness of the film. The above abbreviated outline is really only a jumping off point, as revealing anything more would only detract from the experience of personally witnessing the plot unfold. Scorsese fills his story with wonderfully drawn characters, and the excitement comes, not from the violence, but from the ways they intersect and affect each other. The whole film is set like a chess-game with each side expertly plotting their moves, and the joy comes from seeing how each side will counter the other.

The violence in The Departed is portrayed better than most of the crime films out there, and sets a standard for Scorsese. The violence that occurs in the film is ugly and never played as sensationalistic. It's startling in its suddenness, and it has real impact on those around it. Films nowadays don't take into account the frightening shock that comes with the sound of a gunshot. Scorsese knows this and uses it as a brilliant punctuation point at key moments in the film.

The Departed would be a great film if its excellence was only based on Scorsese's directorial skills. What makes it a masterpiece is the performances. Leonardo DiCaprio is the stand-out here. He takes an extremely challenging role and infuses it with an electricity that came as a shock to me. DiCaprio has been very good before, in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Titanic and The Aviator in particular, but what he does here is a career best. He essentially has to play two roles at the same time: amoral thug and a paranoid, frightened human being at the same time. He has to convince us that he would a believable criminal that a kingpin as intelligent at Costello would not see through. It's an amazing performance that deserves to be honored at Oscar time.

Matt Damon's role isn't as outwardly flashy as DiCaprio's or at all sympathetic. Damon plays the role as an outgoing hard-worker who is all cold-calculation beneath the surface. His character isn't made to suffer like DiCaprio's character, and Damon is very good at portraying a certain cocky arrogance. This isn't a type of role that the actor has played before and I was surprised how immersed he becomes in it. This isn't an over-the-top performance. It's realistic and mundane. It's also the perfect foil to DiCaprio. Damon really shows his range here and it deserves recognition.

Ah, Jack Nicholson! What can I really say? If you're expecting Jack to coast by on his trademark smile and devilish eyebrows, you're dead wrong. When the film begins, Costello is all attitude and confidence, but as the police close in and the net grows tighter Nicholson truly gives us a man becoming increasingly unhinged. Nicholson's final scene is captivating in showing a once powerful man at the bottom of his spiral. It's another mesmerizing Nicholson performance that ranks with some of his finest. You can bet money he'll be remembered come Awards season.

It's extremely rare to see a supporting cast this good. Vera Farmiga, as the woman between the two men, is very good at portraying a rational woman caught between two extremely complicated men. She takes a role that could be seen as a plot contrivance and makes it real. I expect to hear more about her in the future. Martin Sheen is memorable as DiCaprio's character's closest confidant. Sheen is so good at projecting a certain air of trustworthiness that's often overlooked. It works here and the film is better for his inclusion. Alec Baldwin, as Damon's superior is all bluster and over-inflated ego. He's brash, funny and likable. It's the type of performance that Baldwin does better than almost anybody and reminds us why he's considered to be such a great actor. Ray Winstone's portrayal of Mr. French, Costello's second-in-command, is by turns frightening and funny. He brings a real fierceness to the film. Finally, Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg is often written off in Hollywood, given head billing in lesser fare like Planet Of The Apes, Four Brothers or Rock Star. Few often recall the intensity he first projected in Boogie Nights. Well, it's on full display here. The aggressiveness and dedication he brings to the film is invaluable. After seeing him in this, I hope more directors realize his potential as a supporting presence. This is a guy who makes everyone around him work harder and elevates the material he's given. With the right role, he's unstoppable. I'm really hoping he's not overshadowed by Damon, DiCaprio and Nicholson when the acting nominations start up.

When one walks out of the theatre following the end of The Departed, the power of the film affects you. You carry it with you for the next couple days and are reminded what a great movie can do. This is a project where all the stars aligned. A great director working with great actors and a great script deliver something that will be remembered long after the Academy Awards. This is a film that will be forever listed among Scorsese's biggest achievements and hopefully net him his long awaited best director award. Lord knows, he's waited long enough... And Kevin Costner won't be in the running THIS year!

Rating: 5/5

*Whew* 1100 words, a new record here at Cam's Pop-Culture Episodes! I'll bet the record is broken when I review Iron Man though....

P.S.: Well, The Departed beat Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the box-office this weekend! It's a sign that the world isn't completely run by idiots. Congrats to Scorsese for his biggest opening ever! Let's get this thing past the $100 mill. mark, guys!!!

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