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Facing a Loaded Gun

Brian Doxtader and Marty Schroeder | Friday, October 13, 2006

If redemption is the linchpin of past Martin Scorsese films, then “The Departed” is indicative of a significant break with tradition. Most of the director’s work offers some kind of solace, but this film succeeds in spite (or perhaps because of) its conscious need to turn from the past.

All Scorsese pictures are volatile, but “The Departed” is as vicious, cynical and nihilistic as any film the director has made. It’s also one of his best, which is no small feat considering the magnitude of his oeuvre.

Based on the popular Hong Kong trilogy “Infernal Affairs,” “The Departed” follows an undercover cop, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who infiltrates the gang of Boston mafioso Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costello, meanwhile, has an undercover agent among the police, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). As Costigan infiltrates deeper into Costello’s organization, so too does Sullivan rise up the police ranks. Eventually, the film becomes a tense, taut cat-and-mouse game between cop and criminal.

What separates “The Departed” from Scorsese’s other well-known works is the contemporary nature of the narrative. Unlike his two immediately preceding films – “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator” – and other pictures like “The Age of Innocence” and “Goodfellas,” “The Departed” is not a period piece. Yet there is still a tension between the past and present that enhances rather than detracts from the film’s noirish tone. Seeing classically-styled gangsters conducting business on their cell phones is initially jarring, but Scorsese adroitly weaves these modern references into the narrative.

However, “The Departed” is still unmistakably a Scorsese picture. Idiosyncratic filmmaking tendencies, like references to the French New Wave, are sprinkled throughout. More than almost any director, Scorsese creates films that are, above all, cinematic. Nowhere is this more evident than in “The Departed,” which is one of his most consistently engaging pictures.

The acting is incredible thoughout, anchored by Leonardo DiCaprio as the tormented Costigan. DiCaprio, who has emerged as Scorsese’s new DeNiro, gives a fiery, gritty performance that ranks among his best, and Academy Award voters will likely take notice.

Jack Nicholson is predictably reliable as Costello, though he seems to be having the most fun he’s had with a role in years. Nicholson’s improvisatory acting style would seem to contrast with Scorsese’s meticulous tendencies, but that tension produces fantastic results. Nicholson is given some free reign by the director, who in turn pulls the actor in just enough that his performance is believable and even downright scary at times.

Nicholson’s portrayal of Costello ranks up there with other Scorsese anti-heroes like Bill the Butcher (“Gangs of New York”), Tommy DeVito (“Goodfellas”) and Travis Bickle (“Taxi Driver”) in his terrifying unpredictability, and that very quality is what made those characters so galvanizing.

The most surprising performance belongs to Mark Wahlberg, who dominates every frame he’s in. The one-time rapper gets some of the best lines in the picture and he takes full advantage, which makes Dignam, Wahlberg’s foul-mouthed cop, one of the most memorable in the film. The supporting cast is incredible, rounded out by Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin, both of whom give effortless, pitch-perfect performances.

The acting would be wasted if not for a great script, and “The Departed” delivers in spades. William Monahan’s screenplay is funny, profane and affecting all at once, full of punchy dialogue and brisk pacing. Taking cues from Mamet, Tarantino and one-time Scorsese scribe Paul Schrader, Monahan brings a darkly ironic mentality to the script, which is one of the best screenplays the director has had since “Goodfellas.” The brilliance of the screenplay is startling, especially considering that Monahan’s only previous writing credit is “Kingdom of Heaven.”

As expected, the music is great. Scorsese pulls out all the stops, juxtaposing songs by The Rolling Stones (“Gimme Shelter,” and, in one particularly beautiful scene, “Let It Loose”) with songs by Dropkick Murphys (which is appropriate since the band is something of a Boston institution). Music has always been one of the most important aspects of Scorsese’s films, but rarely does he incorporate it so effortlessly into his narrative, and rarely does the stylistic range of music fit so seamlessly.

Also, the ubiquitous religiosity that has fascinated Scorsese since the opening lines of 1973’s “Mean Streets” (“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets, you do it at home.”) once again becomes a central issue. From the opening shots of a young Sullivan as an altar boy, Scorsese has once again returned to his Catholic roots, bringing a bizarre sense of morality to each scene.

“The Departed” is a great film and belongs in the upper echelon of Scorsese pictures. Will it finally win him that cinematic Holy Grail, the Best Director Oscar? If there’s any justice in the world (or at least, Hollywood), it surely will. In the past several years, it seems that Academy voters wanted to give the venerated filmmaker the award, but he wasn’t paired with the right film.

“The Departed” is easily Scorsese’s best in a decade, and he clearly knows it. Infused with an undeniable energy and focus, “The Departed” is a powerful combination of directorial vision and engaging narrative. One of the best films of the year, for sure.