Movie Review: The Departed

THE DEPARTED (149 Minutes, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga)      ****/ 4 stars

Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” is everything that I hoped it would be, a smart, intensely thrilling tale of gansters, deception and murder played to perfection by the star-studded cast. In all, this film, Scorsese’s first since 2004’s incredible “The Aviator”, adds up to about the best cop movie since “L.A. Confidential” combined with the easily the best gangster story since “Goodfellas.”

Of course, any movie that casts Jack Nicholson as an Irish mob-boss would grab my attention immediately. Nicholson stars as Frank Costello,  an aging but still fiercely intimidating crime boss who runs illegal operations in the Boston area including everything from drugs to gambling to stolen micro-chip processors. As Costello, Nicholson shows moviegoers why he may be the greatest actor who ever has been, as he turns this challenging role into one of his most memorable performances. Not without his own patented comedic moments of facial expression (check out the scene where Nicholson is imitating “a rat”, priceless…), Costello is portrayed as hard-nosed, no-nonsense psychopath with little to no empathy for his enemies.

The story’s immediate intrigue rests in its design within the police department. Matt Damon stars as Colin Sullivan, an Irishman who has been bred since his youth working under Costello. Now, working his way high up in the Massachussets police department, he is able to tip Costello off whenever he is in danger of police interference. Therefore, Costello is able to continue his illegal activities with little fear of prison. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to have become Scorsese’s DeNiro of this generation, stars as Billy Costigan, a reckless, mildly disturbed young man with a nothing to lose attitude. Costigan is assigned a dangerous and top-secret duty: to work with Costello inside his crew while providing information back to the police department so that the long sought after crime boss can finally be put away.

This plotline provides immediate intensity and the story flies along like a race with amazing situational parallels. Costigan is infuriated to learn that there is a rat (Sullivan) within the police department working for Costello who is putting his life in danger by prolonging the investigation. Every time Costigan’s hard work leads to information that could lead to an arrest, Sullivan tips Costello off. And Sullivan learns through Costello that there is suspicion of a rat (Costigan)within his crew as well, and Costello charges him with the task of uncovering the informant’s identity. Both men franticly search to try to prove the other’s identity while concealing his own, as the failure to do so has fatal consequences in both situations. If Costigan is found to be a rat, Costello will surely kill him. And if Sullivan is unable to find the rat, Costello will kill him instead. And what secrets is Costello keeping from both of them? The film is brilliant in its circular plotline in which no one can be trusted.

I will not spoil the many tense moments that are sure to keep you at the edge of your seat before this situation is resolved, but suffice to say that the plot becomes much more complex than a simple survival race to discover the identity of an enemy. In classic Scorsese form,  killings a plenty result, and here they seem to become almost overly gory to the extent that it borders on comical. But what it really does it put into perspective the depth of insanity of these homicidal characters. One of these brutal and out-of-nowhere murders, involving a central character, is one of the most shocking moments in recent cinematic history.

Vera Farmiga gives a powerful performance as Madeline, a psycholigist who is dating Sullivan but treating Costigan, and who is attracted to both of them. The two men never make the connection that the man they are searching for is also involved in a relationship with the woman they love, and this creates a hysterically creative irony. Her connection between them eventually plays a pivotal role in the plot’s turn,  but I will not divulge that here either. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg gives perhaps the film’s best performance as Sgt. Dignam, a tough-talking, impossible-to-please officer who gives Costigan the deadly assignment, and eventually becomes the only man left who knows Costigan’s true identity. Wahlberg literally steals every scene that he enters.

Overall, the cast turns in gripping performances across the board. DiCaprio is as effective here as ever, especially as he begins to fear for his own life as Costello begins to uncover the truth. Damon is always interesting when cast in a “bad guy” role, but it works here because we don’t believe that he is really an evil character until the film unfolds in all its glory. And of course, Nicholson plays the role of Costello perfectly in a way that only Nicholson can, and to describe the character as “scary” doesn’t quite do him justice. There is one scene in which Costello enters the bar inexplicably covered in blood up to his arms and all over his shirt, the source of which is never explained nor discussed.

This film is certainly an early front-runner for Best Picture in my book and is also likely to score several nods for its superb cast. It has been awhile since such a complex crime story was brought to life with such grandeur. The film certainly keeps you guessing with its brillantly devised plotline, and the final shocking scene provides the audience with much satisfaction. I can’t wait to see it again.

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