Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Departed (2006)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Departed (2006)

I think I've mentioned on this blog how I admire the films of Martin Scorsese but don't really consider myself a fan of any of them - not Taxi Driver, not Raging Bull, and not Goodfellas - but that has now changed. 'The Departed' is, unsurprisingly, an excellent film, but it's also one that I loved from start to finish.

The film is a crime thriller that revolves around the story of two men in Boston - Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Costigan is a kid with family links to the local Irish mafia who becomes a cop and enters the State Police. Here he meets Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (Mark Whalberg) of the undercover division who tell him he has no future in the Police department, but that his background and ability to blend in within mafia neighbourhoods make him an ideal candidate for undercover work. Sullivan meanwhile is groomed by mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) to be his man on the inside of the Police Department. So while Sullivan lives the life of a successful bright young rising star in the State Police Department reporting to Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin), Costigan becomes a gangster who works closely with Costello and his henchman Mr. French (Ray Winstone). Coincidence leads to both men striking up a relationship with the same woman, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). As the police try to build a case against Costello, both sides become aware of a mole in their ranks and enlist their own inside man (i.e. Costigan and Sullivan) to find out who the other side's mole is.

Its high concept belies what is actually a complex, intricately plotted thriller full of drama, humour, violence, and great characters. The Hong Kong movie this is based on, Infernal Affairs, is a slick thriller but it doesn't really attain the type of depth and scope and impact its remake does. 'The Departed' borrows a lot of plot elements from its progenitor but the writing grafts it superbly into a completely different world and adds more layers of complexity and fleshes out the characters, including the more minor characters. There's some terrific dialogue in here, sharp and often verbose, and some of it very foul indeed, especially a good 50% of what comes out of Mark Whalberg's mouth.

The symmetry between the police and the mafia is an overarching theme here - they're two sides of the same coin, and in some ways they are like two duelling families complete with father figures and complementary tough right hand men. The deception and duality of the central characters is also significant, with both playing at being someone else who isn't that far removed from their actual personalities. Sullivan is a smarmy and ambitious opportunist, and Costigan is a resourceful but hot headed firebrand. The deception and sacrifice take their toll and wear them down however, with Costigan having to assuage the guilt of committing crimes by downing pills, and Sullivan being tempted to just get out of the whole business and start over.

Scorsese makes this compelling from the beginning, and does so while fusing his usual sensibilities with a more crowd pleasing and mainstream sensibility (I guess I am a complete sucker for the mainstream). His interpretation of these characters and realization of every scene is nigh on perfect. The atmosphere is palpable and the fear and excitement in so many scenes feel genuine; but it's also very, very funny at times, and also explosively violent, two qualities you don't often expect to sit well together, but here they do. The drama is tense, the action sequences are exciting, and the violence is often flinch inducing but avoids being gratuitous. Despite how meticulous and unlikely the plot is, it plays out in a realistic tone and there is often a feeling of spontaneity and capriciousness to proceedings.

When it comes to the performances, there's just too many good ones to really do them all justice. One look at the cast list and you can see the potential for greatness, and amazingly everyone delivers in spades. The man that stands out most is probably Mark Whalberg in a limited supporting role. He's brilliant, funny and apoplectic at the same time and his personality fills up the room; it's testament to how good everyone else is that he never really steals the show. Matt Damon is fantastic as the weaselly Sullivan, a guy who's charming and resourceful but also a complete asshole - watching him is always interesting and it's incredible how Damon still manages to make the character likable. Then there's DiCaprio. Anyone who still questions the man's acting talent is surely delusional, because despite his babyface he is perfect as the smart but burdened man who doesn't belong anywhere. He seems uneasy, out of place (not in an undercover cop sense, but more in the sense of a person angry with the world), and also capable of unrestrained violence. The character has to go through a lot more than Sullivan, including some physical stuff and a fair amount of verbal sparring with Nicholson's Costigan, and DiCaprio pulls it off superbly. Speaking of Nicholson, he is an actor I've never really liked but he is well suited to playing psychotic and slightly unhinged characters as he does here.

The rest of the supporting cast are equally good. Despite being the only woman in an impressive male cast, Vera Farmiga holds her own in a fairly limited role, and her interactions with Damon and DiCaprio work well in revealing facets of those characters that are usually kept hidden or in check. Alec Baldwin, who I'm fast becoming a fan of after '30 Rock', is hilarious as the smug, cocky Captain Ellerby. The scene where he assaults a technician for screwing up had me in stitches! Martin Sheen's Captain Queenan on the other hand is down to earth and fatherly, and amazingly he makes for a good team with the foul mouthed Wahlberg. And finally, there's Ray Winstone as Mr. French; one word - badass.

Everything in 'The Departed' just comes together like precision engineering - from the camerawork and photography to the editing, music, costumes, locations, and performances, it all just clicks. Let me mention the music again; Scorsese has always been a master of marrying songs to images and the choice of songs and their use here really makes a strong impact. All in all, it's a phenomenal film, a brilliant crime thriller, and a remake that supersedes the original. The epitome of great filmmaking, and a must see.


Miedy said...

The Departed is an awesome movies, although I still prefer Taxi Driver. The only thing that bug me a little is Jack Nicholson, he seemed always act like the same person on every movies with him that I've seen, although since this movie is so great I think I can get over it :)

Antimatter said...

True that, Nicholson does seem to do variations on the same character. Though he was different in Chinatown. :) Also, he's just right for some roles, like in The Shining and in this.