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October 10, 2006

Scorsese embraces genre conventions in The Departed

Awards for directing have always puzzled me, because with all the hundreds of people working on a movie, one could hardly tell from the finished product who deserves credit for what. I suppose the same could be said of acting prizes, considering the audience has no way of knowing how many takes and how much coaching a certain performance consumed. We do know, though, that at some point the actor had to do the winning take, even if a thousand losing takes preceded it. The hand of the director, however, is only evident across the span of several projects. In 1992, when no one had ever heard of David Fincher, he made an unremarkable but fairly enjoyable installment in the Alien franchise. Only years later—after Se7en, Fight Club, and Panic Room—can one watch Alien3 and recognize the Fincher style emerging amidst a lot of uninspired sequel nonsense.

In the same way, there is no way to prove that The Departed is the brainchild of Martin Scorsese, but it fits in line with his other children so perfectly that there is no mistaking one of the great masters at work. Here is his most satisfying film in more than a decade, a return to the mob, but—dare I say it—an improvement on the formula. Even those who have been less than impressed by Scorsese’s previous mobsters, played by De Niro and Pesci and mixing equal parts profanity and pistol-whipping, may find a place in their hearts for the likes of Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a cop infiltrating the mob, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a mobster infiltrating the cops.

Certainly there is room in all our cardiac cavities for crime boss Frank Costello, played with flair and ferocity by a reinvented Jack Nicholson. These leads are involved in an intricate game of cat-and-mouse that will leave you short of breath. Twists and turns are such a staple of the crime genre that Scorsese has been the odd man out, having made movies about the mafia that rarely include surprise endings. But here he throws it in with the best of them, aided enormously by a sparkling William Monahan screenplay. Monahan’s dialogue slides by so smoothly that you may find yourself looking around for Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns.

Other scenes do even better without any speaking parts. In one, Costigan receives a phone call from a dead man’s cell phone. He picks up, but says nothing. The party on the other end is equally silent; both are deadly curious about whose breath they hear, but neither dares speak for fear of being recognized. Scorsese knows how to use a good moment like that to its greatest potential just as well as he knows how to use a great cast.

It is often said that Scorsese brings out the best in his actors. That may be true, but history shows that their best is not always terribly impressive. Gangs of New York, a disappointing and messy affair, was particularly challenging because it depended on Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz to carry the screenplay, and they were simply not up to the task. Now, at last, the Titanic heartthrob has grown up and gotten his game together. (There were long stretches of the movie during which I did not think of yelling “I’m king of the world!” even once.)

Although DiCaprio is good, Damon is better. He plays a slimy fellow, but delivers smooth talk with such timing and grace that we can hardly fault him for the blood on his hands. An always reliable Martin Sheen and an increasingly reliable Mark Wahlberg round out the marquee as the ultimate good-cop/bad-cop team, with Sheen’s classy befuddlement perfectly offsetting Wahlberg’s hilarious obscenity. Even Alec Baldwin, whom many of you have no doubt given up on, delivers some real zingers with poise. And Vera Farmiga, as a psychologist playing both sides, demonstrates that her standout scenes in the supremely silly Running Scared were no fluke. She is ready to break into the mainstream.

Despite an outpouring of talent and wit from those cast members, this is definitively Jack Nicholson’s show. He is one of the most honored actors in history and it is time to honor him once more. His catty persona is turned on its head to demonstrate a real violence that we never would have believed in Nicholson’s Melvin Udall (As Good As It Gets) or Colonel Jessup (A Few Good Men). Those characters were real jerks, but too cowardly to get their hands dirty. The Departed allows Nicholson a scene in which he walks into a bar completely covered in blood and casually discusses business before leaving coolly. The coldness and blasé disregard for human life come so naturally to Nicholson that it is a wonder he has not played more real villains.

These elements are tied up into such a neat little package that the blood seeping through at the corners is almost surprising. Scorsese’s fingerprints are everywhere, but the final product is like nothing he has done before: a first-class thriller with twists and turns and lightning wit. This film is probably Scorsese’s best since 1993’s The Age of Innocence, another project that paradoxically felt completely incongruous with the rest of the Scorsese oeuvre and yet entirely, unmistakably his own. The Departed is a glorious reinvention, stuffed to the gills with so many great lines, performances, twists, and cuts that it requires a second viewing just to catch everything for the first time. To top it all off, like a cherry on top of a sundae, the closing shot of the film is the best that has graced the screen in recent memory.