Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Departed (Your Racist Friend)

Before I say anything else, I want it noted for the record that I think Goodfellas is the most overrated mob movie I've ever seen. And that Martin Scorsese is just as inconsistent as any classic filmmaker. Having said all of that, Scorsese turns in his most consistent work in years with The Departed. And while solid, The Departed doesn't quite ascend to sit aside other great Boston movies like Good Will Hunting or Mystic River, but it's sitting directly behind them.
Scorsese's latest police and thieves epic, a remake of the Hong Kong film Internal Affairs (and its sequels, in a way), tells the story of two young men in the state police, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Billy grew up in a fractured family with mob connections, and Colin under the watchful eye of Whitey Bulger analogue Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson, in his finest performance since Batman). Colin works his way up the ranks of the state police, while using his position to keep Frank one step ahead of the police. Billy is persuaded to use his family history and violent background to infiltrate Frank's gang in an attempt to bring him down for once and for all. And from there, wackiness ensues.
Now let's stop and talk about the performances. Performace-wise, The Departed is the movie I've been waiting for all year, in that the performances don't simply serve the film. Based on his work here, I think I can finally consider DiCaprio a solid actor. He doesn't do anything flashy here, but he has done his homework. He gives us a Billy Costigan who has no problem beating the crap out of a couple of goombas from Providence with a comic book rack for shaking down a Pakistani store owner, but visibly flinches while Frank brandishes a severed hand and talks about John Lennon. Matt Damon turns in a solid performance as Colin Sullivan, who we see slightly recoiling from time to time, from the choices he's made, and the position he finds himself in. Jack Nicholson is one of those actors I watch all the time, and think "He could be doing better work," the other being Gene Hackman. But here he completely shines as the malevolent Frank Costello, stealing every scene he's in without even coming close to overacting (Paying attention, Al Pacino?). Vera Farmiga is serviceable as the psychologist who is caught between Colin's easy charm and Billy's raw nature. Martin Sheen turns in a subtle, unpretentious performance as Captain Queenan, one of two links to the outside world for Costigan. The other, Sergeant Dignam, is played by Mark Wahlberg, who is making himself more and more invaluable with each passing year. The foul-mouthed (slightly more so than he would be in reality, unlike practically all of the other characters in the film) Dignam serves as an unlikely voice of reason, and seems to have stolen Robert DeNiro's terrible haircut from Scorsese's earlier King Of Comedy. Ray Winstone shows up as Mr. French, Costello's right-hand man, unrecognizable under his skeezy beard. I must give special mention to Alec Baldwin, as SPI Captain Ellerby. Baldwin squeezes maximum impact out of the relatively few scenes he's in as the sweaty, boorish Ellerby. Baldwin is also the actor who has the most accurate Boston accent, save natives Damon and Wahlberg.
One department that helps the film a lot here is the music. Scorsese tones down the overall density of classic rock songs, and uses several effective selections, most of them from the Rolling Stones' seminal Exile on Main Street. The score was also very effective, sort of an urban version of spaghetti western guitars, performed by the prestigious likes of Sharon Isbin and G.E. Smith, under the masterful ear of Howard Shore, late of the LOTR trilogy, Dark City, Silence of the Lambs, and many other classic film scores in recent times. Scorsese reunites with Goodfellas/Last Temptation cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who gives us an attractive yet realistic Boston, and gives the film a nice feel somewhere in between Altman and Anderson, which is right where Marty S is supposed to be. William Monahan is the film's secret weapon, giving us whip-smart, blink-and-you'll-miss-it dialogue, which contributes greatly to the film's excellent pacing. And I have to step in here and defend the film's language...like many Scorsese films, the "excessive" language is cited as a bone of contention for some. Yes, there is a lot of swearing in The Departed, but it is accurate. If you listen to 99% of Bostonians conversing outside of polite company, they talk pretty much EXACTLY like the characters in The Departed, Dignam excepted. People also talk about the violence, but I have three things to say about it: One, children and those who don't have the stomach for lots of gore shouldn't be watching films by Scorsese, Miike, Tarantino, or any other director who is somewhat infamous for violent content. That's like me saying that I went to see the Barney movie, and was put off by excessive hugging. Two, in a movie about cops and the South Boston Irish mob, people are going to get shot in the face at point blank range. A lot. It's what's called content that is appropriate to the material. Thirdly, even aforementioned face-shootings in the movies don't seem like much when you've been exposed to real world violence. It's brutal, ugly, and virtually impossible to capture on celluloid...not that it should be. I don't want to make a reductionist statement to the effect that people who haven't seen stabbing and shooting victims, or have seen or been in serious (read:one person is trying to maim or kill the other person) fights aren't qualified to comment on violence, but I will say that a large section of the puzzle is missing for them.
The Departed suffers a bit from what I feel is excessive character death, and by missing plenty of opportunities to dig deeper into what makes the characters tick, adding more substance to the film. It is what separates The Departed from other great crime films like the first two Godfather films, Double Indemnity, and Se7en. Having said that, Scorsese has distinguished himself with a admirable showing that hasn't escaped notice. The Departed is currently number 53 in the IMDB Top 250 movies of all time, and holds a very impressive 93% with 183 votes on rottentomatoes.com. I give The Departed a rock-solid 13 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

24 Watch: James Badge Dale, who played Jack's Season 3 partner Chase Edmunds, turns up here as a state cop.

This review was fueled by Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones (duh).

2 comments:

Particle Man said...

it's odd that you mention Exile on Main St., since the Stones song i remember figuring most prominently in the film ("Gimme Shelter") is actually from Let It Bleed.

Your Racist Friend said...

True, but Let It Loose is on there too, and the jewel case that Billy sends to Colin towards the end is Exile.