Monday, April 16, 2012

From My Collection: The Departed Movie Review

When Frank Costello asks a man how his mother is and he replies that she’s on her way out, Frank’s rejoinder, “We all are. Act accordingly,” sets a tone for the film. As the title suggests, death hangs like a pall over Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. It is a film in which most of the characters live with the fear of death around them at all times. They are cops and they are criminal mafia.

The story is of two young men, played by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, who become embroiled in an elaborate plot to take down Costello’s crime organization from one end and infiltrate the Massachusetts State Police Force from the other. Damon plays Colin Sullivan, the mole inside the State Police investigative unit for organized crime. He is recruited by Costello as a boy in an extended prologue that introduces most of the major players. Then there’s DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan, a new police recruit fingered for a special deep undercover assignment to help bring Costello down.

Costigan’s unique circumstances as a kid from Boston’s South Side who had a crossover upbringing on the more upscale North Side preclude him from having a successful future as a cop, according to Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). They feel his family history, coming from a line of connected men, puts him in a position that will make him easily accepted to Costello’s inner circle.

The film was adapted by screenwriter William Monahan from the Hong Kong action film Infernal Affairs, which remains unseen by me so I can’t really comment on the adaptation. I can only look at The Departed in isolation (which is all anyone should do except in a case of specifically comparing the two) to see how the story works. The plot is intricate and requires a great deal of concentration on a first viewing. One thing Monahan’s screenplay must do that the original film either didn’t do or did in a very different way is to inject the dialogue with sarcastic humor. He does this mostly through Dignam’s character, who never speaks a line without throwing in an insult with colorful language. As such I’ve always been slightly baffled by Wahlberg’s Oscar nomination for his part here. The character is one-dimensional, existing almost exclusively for comic relief. This isn’t Wahlberg’s fault. There just isn’t really much there to work with.

Scorsese’s direction is full of vivacity in a way he hadn’t really achieved since Goodfellas. His camera almost never stops moving except in dialogue scenes, which are unfortunately shot in a lot of close-ups that detract from the actors’ performances. He employs the usual rock and roll soundtrack to supplement the emotional cues of the story and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker keeps scenes ticking along at a fast pace. The cutting of the scenes is so quick it never feels like the film settles into a groove, but rather remains at the same breakneck pace throughout.

As for the acting, Nicholson got a lot of press at the time and was highly touted as a potential Oscar nominee. Watching the film again now I’m not really surprised he didn’t make it. His performance is far too over the top. It’s like he’s gone Al Pacino in his facial expressions and big gestures. Damon is stronger and up to his usual standards. Costello’s number two man Frenchy is played by the always reliable Ray Winstone. Alec Baldwin has a hilarious turn as another cop in the Special Investigative Unit, but the shining star is DiCaprio. His acting was always phenomenal, but I was and still am stunned by his acting in The Departed. He has to balance the two roles he’s playing: the undercover cop and the criminal gangster. The crux of the story rests on his and Damon’s shoulders and DiCaprio carries it through most of the film. He is, quite frankly, unbelievably good.

The weakest link in the acting has to be Vera Farmiga, who plays Madolyn, the only significant female role, a police psychiatrist who has Costigan as a patient and Sullivan as a boyfriend. I remember seeing the film for the first time and feeling that something about her performance irked me in an intangible way. She doesn’t quite settle into the part and always appears a little uncomfortable or out of place. Maybe that’s part of the point as she’s caught between the affections of two men whose jobs entail deception. In her job she always has to have her guard up for that kind of thing and she knowingly allows one of these deceivers into her personal life while the other sneaks in the back door by keeping his professional life secret.

Seeing the film this time I realized there are several problematic plot holes that are never quite resolved, the most glaring among them being that Costello has someone steal microprocessor chips used for guiding ballistic missiles to their targets so he can sell them to the Chinese government for a bundle of cash. China already has this technology so why would they need to get it on the black market on American soil? Scorsese covers these up with a lot of graphic violence and the fast pace to make you not really think too much about them.

Still I’m willing to overlook these plot holes because for one thing, most of them can be explained away with “just so” stories and because tying up loose ends is not the metric by which this film should be measured in terms of quality. For that I would turn to its exploration of the themes of both death and identity. Admittedly, Sullivan’s character is slightly underwritten. There could be a bit more development of who he is and how he really feels about his relationship to Costello, the ostensible father figure to both him and Costigan. Queenan is the softer, more approachable mother figure to the two men. But Monahan and Scorsese get it just right when it comes to Costigan wrestling with who he is with regard to the life he leads as a criminal and how easily that line begins to blur after more than a year under deep cover. Near the end as everything is falling apart he pleads that he just wants his identity back. Costigan will have to manage several personal demons before that’s even possible. This is ground that was covered just as well, if not better, in Donnie Brasco almost a decade earlier, but The Departed adds the element of Costigan and Sullivan mirroring each other.

As for death, it awaits everyone. It’s foremost on both Costigan’s and Costello’s minds. Costigan knows his days are numbered if he stays undercover and Costello knows that eventually someone will try to usurp his power. The departed in The Departed are the previous generations – the fathers and uncles who served lives of crime and have since passed on. They are also any semblance of a well put together person in the form of both Sullivan and Costigan, who each die a little bit by going into complete servitude for another. They are each on their way out as soon as they take that leap. Once they’ve jumped they have no choice but to act accordingly. 

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