Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Faithful Departed

Being a film student in the 21st century, my knowledge of Martin Scorsese is mostly limited to that of his cinematic influence during my parent’s movie-going generation. Such films as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull- all now considered “classics” are films that I would come to study, but never truly experience due to the whirlwind of imitators that these films spawned for my generation of film lovers. Scorsese’s latest crime drama, The Departed, finally provides our generation of aspiring filmmakers with a masterpiece for our followers to study and dissect.

Taking place in modern day Boston, the film tells the story of how loyalty and deception almost always lead to murder. Undercover idealist Billy Costigan is immersed in the world of Ireland-based organized crime. Costigan is portrayed by current Scorsese favorite Leonardo DiCaprio in what could very well be the best you’ve ever seen him. (If you’re like me, you may have always respected DiCaprio but may not have run out to see his films on opening day… after The Departed, I will run.) The Irish mafia is led by ruthless gangster Frank Costello, notorious for his brutalized murders and nonexistent sense of remorse. Jack Nicholson takes the role of Costello and makes it into arguably the most memorable performance of the year and a career best for the veteran actor. While Costigan is running around commiting felonies at the side of Costello’s second hands- Costello has one of his own planted in a high ranking position with the Boston police department to serve as a heads up for all police knowledge concerning Costello’s dealings. The charming Colin Sullivan is played with an unsettling ease by Matt Damon in one of his few roles as a villain. (See also: The Talented Mr. Ripley.)

Rounding out the cast is a number of assisting police officers- Mark Wahlberg in a scene stealing role as a sergeant assisting Martin Sheen’s Police Captain, and Alec Baldwin heading up Sullivan’s investigation division. The only female role in the movie was handed to new comer Vera Farmiga, who handled the complicated role with an elegance absent in many accomplished actresses.

The first half of the film had the potential to bore audiences out of caring but thanks to Scorsese’s familiarity with the genre, he knew exactly how to hold attention. Providing just enough violence and tension to get us by, combined with the kind comic relief that you feel guilty about laughing at- (but at the same time, pretty clever in your ability to find the irony of it all,) a mainstream audience should be more than willing to take the time to learn about these characters before the bloodshed and throat lumping hits full force. The film’s climax comes abruptly and with more tension than you may be prepared to handle... and delivers pretty fully on the bloodshed. Once each respective “rat” comes razor close to revealing the other, Scorsese raises his ability to create engaging tension to new heights. It’s a film I respected too much as an art form to yell anything at the screen, but god knows I wanted to. One scene in particular in which Costigan follows a suspecting Sullivan through the dark streets of Boston in an effort to see his face continues just long enough for the audience to start chewing on their hair and leaves them gagging on it. Most of Nicholson’s screen time, including the exposition, had the same effect- I found myself at points of ceased breathing just watching the guy… but I was eagerly anticipating such an effect.

I didn’t approach The Departed as a film that would be involving or thought provoking… rather, just a bloody gangster movie with that typical profanely scary Scorsese dialogue that has all the audience talking in badass tongues for at least a few days after seeing the film. So when I saw the movie on opening day I was surprised to find myself both involved in the story and having provoked thoughts following the conclusion. To me, that’s when you know you’ve seen a great film: when the message is simply up for grabs to anyone who reaches for it that you could wrap your head around it for the rest of your waking life and still not really know what the definitive interpretation is. Apart from stellar direction, writing, and acting, this is where The Departed excels.

Both the tagline and the opening monologue of the film offer the idea that when you’re facing a loaded gun, what difference does it make whether you’re a cop or criminal? The more obvious answer maybe that there is no difference… we’re all doomed to die and it doesn’t matter if we fight the good fight, or stand along side the murdering Irish. But I stand along side Mr. Scorsese in the challenge that you explore the film’s many other interpretations of said differences or that you just allow him to reintroduce the premiere intentions of movie-going in what is (so far and probably will be) the best film of 2006… and maybe even of a few years past.

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