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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Departed (2006)

I try not to gush too much in my reviews, but today I can't hold back. The Departed has everything: intense performances, gorgeous cinematography, perfect pacing and a script that would make David Mamet weep. The plot of The Departed is just complicated enough to be interesting without being confusing. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) are two Massachusetts policemen. Colin has a sterling reputation and is rising quickly in his department. Billy, who comes from criminals on one side of his family and from north shore money on the other, is good at playing roles; so good that his superiors Dignam and Queenan (Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen) sneer that he’s still playing a role by pretending to be a cop. They tell him he’s not police material. Then they ask him to go undercover for them. Billy has to buddy up to Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), the Irish mob boss who rules Boston with an iron fist in a velvet glove. What Billy doesn’t know is that Costello has his own rat on the inside: Colin Sullivan. The two rats try to find each other, outsmart each other, and avoid being killed in the process.

While the plot of The Departed is similar to it’s 2002 Hong Kong progenitor Infernal Affairs, the direction is unmistakably Scorcese’s. The camera work, low to the ground and punctuated by rapid cuts, is reminiscent of his early work (Mean Streets). The choice of music, featuring The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Patsy Cline, and The Dropkick Murphys ties with Casino for best Scorcese soundtrack.

Few people play villains with as much relish and finesse as Jack Nicholson, and as Frank Costello he turns in a performance that make many of his other roles seem pale in comparison. The screenplay, deftly adapted by William Monahan from Fiu Fai Mak’s original, gives Nicholson all the best lines (such as, “One of us had to die. With me, it tends to be the other guy, ” and “In this archdiocese, God don't run the bingo.”). This is not to say that The Departed is a one-man show; on the contrary, it has one of the strongest ensemble cast performances of the past few decades. The roles of the “rats” require a lot of nuance. I am not normally fond of DiCaprio’s work, but his performance as Billy is Oscar-worthy. Matt Damon is a tour de force as Sullivan. Martin Sheen (is it ever really a movie without Martin Sheen?) turns in a nice, subtle performance as Queenan. Alec Baldwin entertains as the tough-talking, unshaven Ellerby. Call your ex-wife, Alec, you’re going to need to borrow her Oscar polish. The only person with whom I am not so impressed is the wooden Vera Farmiga as Madolyn. She is not particularly believable as a psychologist, or even as a woman. Then again, her character, while important to driving the film, is written carelessly. Female characters, sadly, get a short shrift and end up as weak links in mob genre pictures ( Diane Keaton in The Godfather Part III, Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface, and even poor Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas).

I’m going to get some heat for this, but I have to say it: I think The Departed is better than Goodfellas. A lot of people argue that Goodfellas is more profound than The Departed. While I definitely think that The Departed is more entertaining and, in some ways, more fun to watch, I do not think it is less profound. Both deal with similar subject matter—family, loyalty, the American dream and the search for the Self. What makes The Departed better is the acting, pure and simple. They say there are two kinds of Ray Liotta movies: Goodfellas and everything else. However, after watching Ray again in his career-defining role as Henry Hill, I can say that his performance can’t touch that of Matt Damon or even Leo. The Departed is the best movie I have seen all year, and I hope that Mr. Scorcese finally claims the recognition owed to him by The Academy after all these years.

The amount I would pay to see this movie: $10


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