The Departed is easily Martin Scorcese’s best film since his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas. In the past decade and a half, he has experimented with a number of different styles and genres of film, sometimes succeeding reasonably well (2004’s The Aviator), sometimes not (2002’s boring, messy Gangs of New York). With The Departed (or should I say, The Depahted), Scorcese returns to the gritty, urban crime dramas that made his career, but gives the genre a twist by setting in Boston and focusing on Irish-American criminals instead of Italian-American ones. Screenwriter William Monahan based his script on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, yet the movie feels unique and original.
The complex, multi-layered story follows a group of cops, detectives and FBI agents (played by such young Hollywood luminaries as Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg) as they try to bring down Boston crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). In the midst of all these conflicted men is a psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga) who becomes involved both personally and professionally with several of the key players. Part of the fun for those of us in Snobsville (AKA Boston) is watching this twisty story play out against a Beantown backdrop. The city is so prominent in the film that it almost functions as another character (indeed, a building in Chinatown plays a crucial role in several high-tension scenes). Scorcese is in fighting shape here and for the most part this two-and-a-half-hour film crackles with intensity. The editing is sharp, but blissfully not overtly showy (see his 1991 version of Cape Fear as a case in point) and the short scenes almost muscle in on each other as if fighting for screen time.
In the lead role, DiCaprio is reliably edgy and volatile—he’s thoroughly believable as a loner with something to prove. For those who may have chuckled at his accent in the previews (I did), the story creates a solid explanation for it: he’s an upper class guy trying to be a working class Southie. Also providing good support are Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen as department higher-ups trying to nab Costello. Mark Wahlberg, in a small but pivotal role, steals every scene he’s in as a no-B.S. ball-buster with zero patience. The best player in this company, however, is Damon whose multifaceted performance capitalizes on his trademark self-assurance and balances it with terrific vulnerability. In comparison, Nicholson—who should be ideal as the morally bankrupt crime lord—is only partially successful. While solid in some of his scenes, he too often lets his ego do the acting and excessive personality does not a good performance make. While there may be Academy voters who still eat up his Jack Nicholson shtick, I’ve been more impressed with his work lately when he plays against type. The real slacker in the bunch is Farmiga, who registers absolutely zero personality. Admittedly, her part is basically “the girl”, but instead of fighting to give her character different shades and nuances, she caves in and lets her macho costars act circles around her.
In Farmiga’s defense, the problem isn’t entirely hers. If there is a downside to The Departed it’s an occasional excess of testosterone-fueled melodrama. Every now and then you want to say to the filmmakers, “Okay, we get it. You’re all tough guys.” The ending in particular waxes into a method-acting Greek tragedy. These are small points of contention because overall The Departed is a riveting ride—a hard-edged, violent morality play written, directed and acted with remarkable ferocity.
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