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Departed, The (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 06 October 2006
Easily the best movie of the year so far, “The Departed” is Martin Scorsese having fun making a true Hollywood Movie, something he’s rarely done in his impressive career. And yet it’s also squarely in what he’s established as familiar territory; like “Mean Streets,” “GoodFellas” and “Casino,” it’s about crime in America, but this time as much about cops as it is about robbers.

Based on a Hong Kong hit, “Infernal Affairs” (which generated a sequel and a prequel), “The Departed” is set in Boston starting “a few years ago.” The gangsters—and the cops—here are tough Irishmen, scornful of “lace curtain Irish” from the North Shore. We meet mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), who looks a bit Satanic with his goatee and wicked eyebrows—and he’s as tempting as Satan. He focuses in on neighborhood kid Colin Sullivan, and sees to it that as a man (Matt Damon), Sullivan becomes a Connecticut State Police officer, under the command of Ellerby (Alec Baldwin).

Meanwhile, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), suffering from the stigma of criminal relatives, also becomes a CSP officer assigned to Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his angry, profane sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), who verbally lacerates Costigan on their first meeting. “Normally,” explains Queenan, “he’s—uh—a very nice guy.” They’ve been trying to get the goods on brutal, slippery Costello for years, and offer Costigan a rough assignment: to be dismissed from the police force to infiltrate Costello’s gang. Only Queenan and Dignam will know that Costigan is still a cop, as he reports only to them.

Sullivan, of course, reports only to Costello, calling him “dad” in their coded cell-phone messages. (Cell-phones play a major, sometimes amusing, role in “The Departed.”) Costigan goes get close to Costello, though Costello’s right-hand man Mr. French (Ray Winstone) is always a shade suspicious of the newcomer.

Then Ellerby begins to suspect his team has been infiltrated by a member of Costello’s gang—and assigns Sullivan to track the rat down. For his part, Costello also smells a rat, and asks Sullivan’s help in finding him. Tying the two together (they meet only at the end of the movie) is that both Costigan and Sullivan are first treated by psychotherapist Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), then become her lovers. She even moves into Sullivan’s plush apartment with its glorious view of the state house on Beacon Hill.
Of course things head for a showdown.

They take a while getting there, though; the movie is 159 minutes long—but never feels overlong at all. It’s crisply paced, always involving, and brilliantly written by William Monahan; the script is full of vivid lines, many of them from Nicholson, many others from Wahlberg, who’s never been better. Nicholson narrates the opening: “I don’t want to be a product of my environment,” he says, “I want my environment to be a product of me.” And it is. Costello has a firm grip on crime in South Boston, and the cops find him very difficult to dislodge. When someone says a mother is dying, Costello snaps, “We all are. Act accordingly.”

Scorsese’s previous crime films were intense but essentially realistic; “The Departed” is strong, strong stuff, but there’s also something very playful about it (as the last shot indicates). It’s remarkably funny much of the time, and a lot of that comes from Nicholson, both his dialogue and his performance. This is the first time these two graduates of the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking have worked together, and I sure hope they do so again. Nicholson’s performance is both relaxed and intense, an unusual combination he’s fielded before. Costello is a tough customer, no doubt about it; he muses to Costigan that if he had suspected a rat in the old days, he’d just have killed his whole gang and started over. This is said without any noticeable anger. But Costello is also slowly going nuts. At one point, he strolls in spattered with blood, and we never know where it came from. At another, he startles Sullivan by whipping out an enormous dildo.

Father-son relationships permeate the film. Sullivan’s and Costigan’s fathers are both dead; Sullivan regards Costello as a father (and he sees the younger man as a son), while Costigan has a similar relationship with aging family many Queenan. Furthermore, since almost all these people are Boston Irish, there are links from almost everyone to almost everyone else—Costigan is surprised to find a spray of flowers from Costello at his mother’s funeral, and this is BEFORE he infiltrates Costello’s mob.

Interestingly, Ellerby ALSO is a father figure to the conflicted Sullivan. He’s a crook trained to be a cop—and he feels like a cop, too. His loyalty isn’t to crime, it’s to Costello, personally, and yet he’s a good cop. This division in his own nature has its effect; the first time he and Madolyn go to bed, he’s impotent, and we get the impression this isn’t uncommon for him.

Costigan is also starting to fray around the edges, though in his case its not sublimated into impotence—he is humanly horrified by the crimes he’s forced to witness, even participate in, by his position as one of Costello’s men. But he has few people he can talk to about this, certainly not Dignam, who’s angry most of the time, partly because of class differences.

Scorsese, of course, worked with DiCaprio on “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator,” so it’s not surprising to find him here. It’s likely that one reason Matt Damon was cast was because he and DiCaprio are so similar in appearance and screen presence. If there had been a third, it probably would have been Brad Pitt—but he’s one of this movie’s producers.

The entire cast is excellent; Sheen is as good as he was on “The West Wing,” Wahlberg has rarely been this powerful, and Baldwin is vivid and funny in one of the best performances in a movie full of them. Others who make strong positive impressions include Ray Winstone and Mark Rolston, as a Costello thug with a secret.

“The Departed” is rated R; it’d get that if only for the violence. It’s not frequent, but when it occurs, it’s intense and realistic. Keep that in mind. This is a movie for grownups.

Scorsese is again working in wide screen, which he only began using recently. Michael Ballhaus is again the cinematographer—this is his seventh film with Scorsese—and again, he’s a master of lighting and color. The score is by James Horner; it includes surprisingly varied background music, from Donizetti’s opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” to Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,” heard often enough to be almost a theme for Costello’s character. As usual, veteran Thelma Schoonmaker is again Scorsese’s editor; she won two Oscars for her work on previous Scorsese movies.

“The Departed” is long and it is intense, but it’s also peculiarly relaxed and entertaining in unexpected ways. It’s intricate and yet clear, violent and yet funny, and has a series of surprises at the end that go off like a string of firecrackers. This isn’t one of Scorsese’s deeply personal films, like “Raging Bull,” but it’s a great director at the height of his abilities. You won’t see a better new movie this year.

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