BY MATT JUSTUS
Director: Martin ScorseseStarring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
Though it’s already been out long enough to have been knocked from the top spot at the box office by The Grudge 2, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed should make an appearance on just about anyone’s to-see list before it departs theaters – it’s Scorsese’s best film since Goodfellas. Of course, with a cast including the three listed above alongside Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, and Martin Sheen, you’d be hard pressed to make a bad movie, but this one managed to vastly exceed my already-high expectations for it.
Adapted from a Chinese film called Mou gaan dou (“Internal Affairs”), The Departed follows two young Bostonians as they become Massachusetts State Troopers, both of whom become involved with Boston’s organized crime scene. Colin Sullivan (Damon) began working for local Irish gangster Frank Costello (Nicholson) as a child, and joined the police force to serve as an inside man for him. Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) grew up as a part of Boston’s upper-middle class, but pretended to be from Southie for street cred. On graduation, he is recruited to go undercover in Costello’s unit to help build the state’s case against him (though first Costigan has to be falsely convicted of a felony and spend some time in prison to throw off suspicion). What follows is high-stakes drama that doesn’t let up for the film’s entire 152-minute runtime, as DiCaprio and Damon struggle to flush one another out into the open.
As can probably be expected, the highlight of the film is its cast. Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin craft great supporting (and surprisingly comedic) characters, which is no mean feat as they compete for screentime with the rest of the big name cast. Jack Nicholson seems more motivated here than he has in years – he is actually playing a character, not just a charming or psychotic version of himself (see Something’s Gotta Give and Batman, respectively). Yet my favorite performance, surprisingly, came from Matt Damon. He is perfect as the film’s true villain – confident with traces of slime and cowardice showing through, evil and calculating yet motivated and honestly hoping for a change. Whereas DiCaprio’s past performances continue to haunt him even here, there were times that I honestly forgot I was watching Matt Damon, Movie Star.
The dialogue and pacing are also spot-on throughout the film – Scorsese certainly knows how to build tension, as well as how to diffuse it with a short scene or even a one-liner. As events within the film progress and Costigan’s cover comes closer and closer to being blown, whereas Sullivan appears practically untouchable, an interesting juxtaposition between police officer and criminal stereotypes is created. Costigan is desperate, scruffy, and constantly on the run, while Sullivan is (comparatively) relaxed, clean cut, and insulated from harm. Costello sums the problem up best at the beginning of the movie: “When I was your age, they would say you could become cops or criminals. What I’m saying is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” By the time the closing credits roll, the audience is nearly as exhausted and beleaguered as DiCaprio’s character must have been, and there are no easy answers to Costello’s question.
My only real issue with the film is that the ending is – without wanting to give anything away – Shakespearean, to the point of eliciting nervous laughter from the audience. It doesn’t quite cross the line, and remains satisfying for the most part, but it does stretch the bounds of believability. The wild ending mostly gets a pass from me, though; given the constant stress created by the rest of the film, raging catharsis seems like the only possible resolution. One event, however, is misplaced to the point that it deflates the audience prematurely, thus lessening the emotional impact of what follows.
As for the twenty-thousand dollar question of whether this will finally nab Scorsese a Best Director Oscar after six nominations, I’d like to say yes, given that this is a great gangster movie and a damn fine moviegoing experience. With this film, Scorsese seemed to give up the Oscar chase he’d been going through with The Aviator and Gangs of New York and instead made a film that goes back to his roots. The result was a better film than either of those. But if Scorsese couldn’t win for Raging Bull or Goodfellas in the first place, the Academy must have a pretty serious grudge against him.