The Departed: Less than Perfect, but All is Forgiven

jack nicholson and matt damon in the departed
Mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson)
with police informer Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in the The
Departed
.

The most ironic of the many adages asserted by
killer/gangster/sidewalk philosopher Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson)
in Warner Brothers’ new film, The Departed, ultimately
comes off like a rant from the grave by novelist Theodore Dreiser:

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I
want my environment to be a product of me.”

Although the mobsters are Irish, not Italian, and the location
is South Boston instead of Brooklyn, make no mistake: we’re
in Scorsese country. Here, nobody rides for free, and very few survive.
And in any knock-down drag-out between a character and his environment,
you should put your money on the neighborhood.

In a surprisingly brisk, two-and-a-half-hour story brimming with
beatings, murder, betrayals, extortion and corruption, scriptwriter
and Boston native William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven, 2005)
deftly adapts a 2002 hit movie from Hong Kong, Infernal Affairs,
to re-invent themes from the 1988 movie Goodfellas on his
home ground. Many elements of director Martin Scorsese’s earlier
classic emerge in his new film: the mentoring of criminals from
boyhood, the importance of cronies over family, the value of paranoia
over friendship and the dispensability of just about anyone.

Though, in a final analysis, The Departed is a more unsettling
film than Goodfellas because the venality it depicts has
wormed its way into the ranks of law enforcement. Matt Damon portrays
Colin Sullivan, an upwardly bound, ambitious cop in the Special
Investigation Unit of the Massachusetts State Police who is actually
a mole in the employ of mob boss Frank Costello. Leonardo DiCaprio
plays Billy Costigan, an undercover cop who works for a sister investigatory
unit in the same police department. Eventually each cop is given
the assignment of exposing the true identity of the other; and the
driving tension of the plot emerges from the frenetic survival race
between Sullivan and Costigan.

Damon taps the same energies he used so skillfully in The Talented
Mr. Ripley
(1999) to deliver a journeyman performance as the
deceitful Sullivan. He serves up the patina of civility and the
honest-cop pose in just the right proportions to appease the higher-ups
while, at the same time, undermining their efforts.

leonardo dicaprio in the departed

DiCaprio has arguably endured the most
prolonged onscreen adolescence since Mickey Rooney –
The Departed represents his film Confirmation.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, however, is the more conspicuous
achievement. DiCaprio has arguably endured the most prolonged onscreen
adolescence since Mickey Rooney. Gone finally are the scrubbed-clean
choirboy look and the heart throb pose. Billy Costigan stays closer
in character to son of a bitch than saint throughout the story,
and DiCaprio’s role as such in The Departed, I’m
pleased to report, represents his film Confirmation. (Let’s
face it: DiCaprio’s attempt to grow up to be Howard Hughes
in The Aviator is a glassful short of a quart of pasteurized
milk.) The innocent Titanic stowaway has surfaced from
steerage, mirabile dictu, as a man this time credibly in
need of a shave and a drink considerably stronger than the cranberry
juice he demands during an at once fearsome and hilarious rite-of-passage
bar scene in the current film. Continually on the edge of blowing
his own cover, Billy flits between volatility and restraint, machismo
and depression. A third of the way into the movie, he discovers
that his job wasn’t as easy as he had thought, and now Billy
wants his identity back. Trouble is that his supervisors insist
that Billy stay the course until he tracks down “the rat”
in the police force. But Billy is as much prey as he is predator
because Damon, under unrelenting pressure from Costello, is charged
with smoking out the “rat” inside the mob that happens
to be also hunting him down.

Jack Nicholson is characteristically obscene, vicious and unprincipled
in his role as Frank Costello. Throughout his career, film audiences
have come to hunger for his reliable albeit predictable ingenuity
as their tour guide through Hell. A scene in which Nicholson does
his exquisite and uproarious impersonation of a rat (the four-legged
variety) is, in itself, worth the movie’s admission price.

If Nicholson’s character represents the glue of Evil in the
story line, its pathos resides in police psychiatrist Madolyn, portrayed
by Vera Farmiga (The Manchurian Candidate, 2004). She winds
up compromising her own professional reputation by having an affair
with co-worker Sullivan, and then becomes her own hard act to follow
when she hops in the sack with quick-to-become ex-patient, Billy
Costigan. With notable proficiency, Farmiga gives us a Madolyn whose
emotional balancing act invites more sympathy than scorn, lends
richness to the theme of betrayal and becomes a catalyst for the
film’s explosive, if imperfect, finish.

There ought to be a law that prevents us from using the phrase
“supporting roles” to describe the kinds of superb performances
turned in by Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin. Writer
Monahan is adept at injecting his characters with fair and equal
doses of testosterone so that the three acting veterans wind up
promoting rather than outdoing one another; and together Sheen and
Wahlberg manage to turn in a good-cop-bad-cop tap dance that should
become a classic.

It’s safe to say that Martin Scorsese is not merely preoccupied
with the loyalty/betrayal equation; he’s obsessed with it.
The theme pervades his core work. It’s the material of the
finest opera, and after watching magnificent Scorsese films for
three decades, one understandably holds his breath when he first
sits down to watch the current film.

Unfortunately, the twists and turns come too precipitously at the
very end, and an almost perfect film lapses into just too much silliness
and bang bang shootem’ dead. And the very last scene
serves up a symbol that’s entirely too cheap and obvious.
An audience can almost hear the voice of the director in the background
as he prods the screenwriter: “We’re over budget. Are
we finished yet?”

But we crave a deeper experience from the subtle director who knows
how to accentuate his soundtrack with a recording from Lucia
di Lammermoor
and who intricately inserts into his footage
a film clip from the John Ford 1935 classic film, The Informer.
What this film needs in the end are fewer pratfalls and mishaps
in the guise of instant destiny and more audience grieving room
for its departed.

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