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Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Departed

Have you ever really thought about Martin Scorsese’s world? I mean really thought about it. Around New York he is treated like royalty more than as an anonymous behind-the-camera artiste as most movie directors are. Film and Broadway stars fall before him in deference and politicos like Mayor Bloomberg and his predecessors Giuliani, Dinkins, and Koch have never failed to include him in their high society parties and galas in the Hamptons. He’s been feted by almost every high-falootin’ film organization and University and Arts Council in the World, but if you really look at the movies he makes he doesn’t have much nice to say about the City he calls home.

In Scorsese’s New York, the Italians are inevitably murderous mobsters (Goodfellas; Mean Streets; Taxi Driver), artists are high-strung out-of-control psychotics (New York Stories), the streets can be filled with
potential stalkers desperate for attention (The King of Comedy) or they are littered with dangerous drugged-up homeless people ready to kill for a fix (Bringing Out The Dead) and the city as a whole is awhirl with loneliness, filth, ugliness, vulgarity, violence, and pornography, making the lives of all he captures on film desperate to escape by any means necessary, whether that means by drugs, alcohol, murder, or mayhem to self-soothe those demons that haunt them. Now that is quite a valentine to present to your home town with love. No wonder the elite in their penthouses adore him. His films remind them daily of how lucky they are to have the money to walk on the air above the “real” New York and see only the glistening beauty of Bergdorf’s and the Chrysler Building many floors above the filth below.

Now Scorsese has turned his attention a little further North. He has worked his way slowly up the coast towards us, this time settling on Boston as the focus of his bloodletting in this week’s star-studded film, The Departed, now playing at the
Essex Cinemas.

The Departed is a great film, one of his best, written by relative newcomer, Boston’s own William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) with help from Hong
Kong directors Siu Fai Mak and Felix Chong, who created the original Chinese version, Mou gaan dou. What the Hong Kong guys were doing infiltrating this complicated story and turning it into a story about the Irish mafia is beyond me, but then, hey, what’s a guy named Scorsese doing wrapped up with the Irish mob either considering he’s made a career out of exploiting the Italian mafia. Has he finally told all the stories of all the Italian criminals there are? I kid you, Marty, because I care. Please don’t kill me.

The Departed really is something to behold. First is the casting. Where do you begin to look? There’s the King himself, Jack Nicholson (Something's Gotta Give) as Frank Costello, an untouchable mob boss (what else?) that the state police and the FBI have been trying to nab for years. There’s Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator) as a police academy drop-out, William
“Billy” Costigan, now going undercover for the FBI to infiltrate Costello’s organization. Matt Damon (Syriana) is Sergeant Colin Sullivan, Costigan’s unwitting rival for the same woman, a therapist called Madolyn, played by Vera Farmiga (Breaking and Entering), and also his rival for the role as Costello’s most-trusted confidant, though Sullivan is working for the state troopers, of course. Rounding out the cast is Mark Walhberg (Invincible) as Dignam and Martin Sheen (Bobby) as Oliver Queenan, the less-than-pleasant duo running the undercover efforts on the police end and Alec Baldwin (Running with Scissors), rapidly beginning to look more and more like Larry the Cable Guy with every bite he takes, as Ellerby, the FBI’s version of Queenan. Of course, even though these boys share office space, separated by only a wall of glass, they are separated by much, much more. God forbid they should share information or consider working together. Instead, at odds with each other for the glory and machismo invested in “getting their kill” these guys act as if they are more one another’s enemy than the Mafioso they are charged to arrest and convict.

It would be unfair to reveal too much of the plot to The Departed because it is one of those amazingly constructed stories that as you watch it you feel like you are playing a game of Jenga®, that puzzle where you and the other players keep stacking odd shapes of wooden pieces on top of one another until finally something collapses. That pretty much describes the action in The Departed. One move from this character or camp initiates a response from another which may send ripples and another reaction from somewhere else entirely and so it goes until many surprises are revealed, many unexpected turns shock, and so much gunplay has slaughtered so many people that you’ll feel drained yet satisfied in knowing that you’ve been caught up in a whirlwind by a true master. In some ways, as violent and unpleasant as Scorsese makes his world(s), he does it with the spectacular grandiosity of a premier magician like David Copperfield. He dazzles with the gunplay, the profanity, the occasional flash of sex here and there, and definitely with the gallons of blood, but while the audience is focusing on all of this, the director is laying the groundwork at your feet to surprise you with a conclusion to the story that you hadn’t even considered.

The actors are going to be doing a lot of shuffling come awards season,
though I suspect Leonardo DiCaprio will be the one holding the golden statue next Spring when the Academy Awards are handed out. He has long deserved to win, as has Scorsese for Best Director, and both present their most complex and mature work ever here. Personally, I was most impressed by Damon, who is arguably the lead performer of this piece. His is a tour de force, and if not for his boyish good looks and his unfortunate affiliation in many people’s minds as half of the Damon/Affleck team, he’d have a much better chance of being taken more seriously on his own merit. As for Nicholson… well, Jack is Jack. He should not even be allowed to be considered an actor at this point. Like John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart, Jack has become an icon that brings more layers of “crazy” to “crazy” than Sigmund Freud could list in his entire career. Nicholson is a classic in whatever he does, and he elevates ordinary material to something far more than it would have been in a lesser artist’s hands.

It may be early to call The Departed the Film of the Year since we’ve yet to see what the studios will be gifting us with as the holidays approach, but despite the profanity and violence, this is a “Big Boy” movie for adults who like to see something with substance that requires brains to appreciate. That doesn’t mean you have to work to “get” the movie as you sometimes may feel you have to do with some foreign flicks. It just means you’ll finally feel like you are seeing a movie that isn’t talking to you like you can barely finish the crossword puzzle in Highlights© magazine even with the help of a nine year old tutor to spell the “hard” words for you. You don’t need someone to make you an offer you can’t refuse. Just go. There’s no better way to spend an evening than with The Departed at the
Essex Cinemas.

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