Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Weekend Review of The Departed

After months of drought in Texas, we celebrated this weekend with two days of steady rainfall. I celebrated losing my week's sore throat by going to see the new film, The Departed, Martin Scorsese's latest.

Scorsese, an Italian-American, was born in New York and is well known for exploring the neighborhoods and underbelly of Little Italy. In The Departed, he focuses his cinematic eye on South Boston and a working class neighborhood populated by Irish Americans.

The Departed is a byzantine film--at once both devious and intricate. There are moments of humor and moments of incredibly brutal violence. This is not a movie for the squeamish; it abounds in racism, strong language and violence.

The linchpin of the film is Jack Nicholson as mob boss Frank Costello. Nicholson has a field day with the role. One minute he's paternalistic, offering a young boy groceries for his granny. The next, he's leering at a young girl, asking if she's had her first period yet.

Scorsese does a terrific job of painting South Boston--"Southie" to its inhabitants--who eye the cops with the same distrust they offer the mobsters.

The Massachusetts State Police are at war with the Irish gang led by Costello. Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg play two State cops with the special investigative unit who are determined to bring down Costello. To this end, they pick a young cadet (Leonardo DiCaprio) from a family of career criminals and convince him to go undercover in order to infiltrate Costello's mob. To create his cover, the cadet, Billy Costigan, is kicked out of the police, serves time in jail and returns to Southie to hook up with his idiot cousin doing drug deals. It isn't long before Costigan catches Costello's eye and is recruited.

Nicholson's Costello rules over his fiefdom with an alert eye. Years before, he co-opted a Southie boy named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). At Costello's urging, Sullivan joined the state police where he became a member of the special investigative unit serving under Captain Ellerby (Alex Baldwin). As Costello's mole, Sullivan feeds his gangster mentor information on potential raids.

It takes more than a year for the state police and Costello to realize they each have an enemy mole in their ranks. Both respond the same way, demanding that "their" moles find their opposite numbers.

This is the heart of the film: the character studies of these two young men. Both are very bright and motivated, but both are skilled liars operating under tremendous pressure. That pressure takes its toll: Sullivan has impotency issues, and Costigan is having panic attacks.

The corrupt Sullivan is thinking ahead to a political career; the golden dome of the State House is a frequent symbol. The pure-hearted Costigan has a much more modest goal: staying alive. Costigan is both fascinated and repulsed by his own temper and easy ability to slip into violence.

As the two young men become aware of each other's existence--although not their identities--they unwittingly cross paths. Sullivan is dating a young psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga) that Costigan is seeing as a part of the conditions of his parole.

Nicholson chews up the scenery (no surprise). Damon gives a strong performance, but I thought DiCaprio's was much more layered. Sheen and Baldwin are steady workhorses. The real surprise to me was Mark Wahlberg, who does a bravura turn as the foul-mouthed second-in-command of the Staties.

This is an excellent film and one which I intend to see again soon. I won't be surprised to see it garner multiple Oscar nominations. The soundtrack--which alternates between rock and opera--is simply fabulous. I hope Scorsese gets another Oscar nod as the director. Maybe the sixth time will be the charm.

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