Wednesday 15 October 2014

Movie Review: The Departed (2006)

The film that finally delivered the Best Director Academy Award to Martin Scorsese, The Departed is a slick police drama centred on an epic battle to wrest control of Boston's underworld away from an entrenched mobster lord. A stellar cast helps to balance the film's more overwrought elements.

Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is the head of Boston's largest criminal syndicate, brutally engaged in grand scale extortion, trafficking and wanton violence. Police Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his deputy Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) spot an opportunity to infiltrate Costello's empire by inserting new police graduate Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) as an undercover mole. Billy is from the wrong side of town, and a manufactured criminal record as well as his chequered family history eventually gain him entry into Frank's inner circle.

Costello: I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.

But Frank has his own agent working inside the police department. Staff Sergeant Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is considered by his boss Captain Ellerbyone (Alec Baldwin) to be of the brightest officers on the force, but Sullivan is on the criminal payroll and ensures that Frank stays one step ahead of enforcement efforts to nab him. First Sullivan and then Costigan get romantically involved with psychologist Dr. Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga). With Costigan beginning to buckle under the tension of his double life, both Costello and Queenan come to the realization that there are moles within their organizations, leading to a ferocious settling of the scores.

FBI Agent Lazio: Do you have anyone in with Costello presently?
Dignam: Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself. My theory on Feds is, they're like mushrooms: feed them shit and keep them in the dark.

Written by William Monahan as an adaptation of the 2002 Hong Kong film Internal Affairs, The Departed is hard-hitting, loud and drenched in testosterone. At 151 minutes the film is probably a good half hour too long, and the second half bogs down in a seemingly endless find-the-mole pursuit driven by justified paranoia. But The Departed overcomes its weaker points thanks to a grim attitude of survival at all costs, with the characters of Costello, Costigan and Sullivan playing dangerous games of deception to further their careers in an uncaring world.

Costello: One of us had to die. With me, it tends to be the other guy.

Scorsese creates a world where men rule with incessant shouting, intimidation and cursing, and proceed to create spectacular messes. The police department is a cesspool of competing agendas and mistrust, and Frank Costello's criminal empire is barely held together by the iron will of one man who sees enemies everywhere. The agencies on both sides of the law appear equally dysfunctional and distasteful. Dr. Madden is the only woman of relevance in the cast, and she seems off-centre and out of place, getting in the way of the men's ruinous agendas.

The script is a treasure of caustic one liners. Before the guns are drawn (and eventually they are, in large numbers), the characters of The Departed fire ballistic words at each other. No calm sentence will do when it can be replaced by a fine-tuned verbal barrage, and Monahan excels at creating enduring quotable exchanges. In the hands of an exceptional cast, The Departed becomes an intellectual sparring match, a multi-pronged battle of wits where the acts are always violent, but not anymore so that the fierce thoughts that precede them.

(a police surveillance operation is not going well; there are blind spots, and officers are losing their sight lines and losing their cool).
Dignam: This is incredible. Who put the fucking cameras in this place?
Surveillance Guy: Who the fuck are you?
Dignam: I'm the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.

The Departed basks in the glow of the current generation of superstar actors in the form of DiCaprio, Damon and Wahlberg rubbing shoulders with elder statesmen Nicholson, Sheen and Baldwin. DiCaprio and Damon deliver the requisite intensity as the men taking the highest risks to prove themselves and alter the outcome of the battle for street control. In terms of balance among the stars, the film probably has too much of Nicholson and too little of Wahlberg, Sheen and Baldwin.

The Departed reaches a climax of brutal bloodletting that delivers the requisite shock and gore, but also undermines a lot of the build up. When killing suddenly becomes too easy and everyone is a target, the careful game of cat-and-mouse that unfolded over several years is inevitably diminished.

There is no question that Scorsese has crafted better gems. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, among others, are greater artistic achievements and more deserving of Academy Award recognition. The Departed proved to be the opportunity to correct past oversights in recognizing one of Hollywood's greatest ever directors; fortunately, it is also a provocative story of conflicted men pushing their fate into dangerous territory, where Scorsese happens to be most comfortable.

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