Martin Scorsese, USA, 2006
Kevin Forest Moreau
Mirror images dominate The Departed, Martin Scorsese's jarring and
often brutal adaptation of the seething Hong Kong thriller
Infernal Affairs, so much so that it's a wonder the film doesn't get
hopelessly lost in its labyrinth of double identities, doppelgangers and
deceptions. Almost every major character has an opposite number; many suffer
from, or are driven by, inner conflicts that are nicely represented in a
convenient yin-and-yang duality.
This could easily be a recipe for disaster: If you've ever placed two
mirrors in front of each other, or otherwise checked out one reflective
surface in another, you know how easy it is to become mesmerized by the
tunnel effect of reflections of reflections of reflections of reflections,
all the way down to a distant vanishing point. But despite that very real
danger -- not to mention a two-and-a-half-hour running time and a big-name
cast that threatens to draw the viewer out of the film's tightly contained
reality with every familiar tic and hilarious quip -- Scorsese keeps The
Departed on an even keel until the second-to-last frame.
The film's chief doppelgangers are Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a
smooth-talking policeman who's secretly a mole for Boston mob boss Frank
Costello (Jack Nicholson), and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wiry,
fidgety small-time crook in Costello's employ who's secretly a cop assigned
to help take the swaggering head honcho down. Billy comes from the wrong
side of town and a long line of ne'er-do-wells, and burns with a desire to
buck their bad example; sucked back into the world he hoped to leave behind
after the death of his mother, he's always nervous and watchful, as much
afraid of the influence of his old 'hood as of being found out for a rat.
Sullivan, meanwhile, relishes his swift ascent into a world of power and
middle-class affluence of the sort he never enjoyed as a boy. And where
Costigan seems to be coming apart at the seams, Sullivan is as cool as a
cucumber, even when Costello threatens the well-being of his new live-in
girlfriend (Vera Farmiga) if he doesn't use his position to sniff out the
rat in Frank's crew.
That's the primary dynamic of division at work in The Departed, but
it's far from the only one. Costello has his own opposite -- Captain Queenan
(Martin Sheen), Costigan's boss, as calm and reserved as Costello is over
the top (we'll get to that later). Costigan's main contact is Dignam (Mark
Wahlberg), Queenan's right hand man, a brash, combative loudmouth who could
get under Gandhi's skin in thirty seconds flat; he seems to trust no one
save Queenan. Sullivan's closest superior is Ellerby (Alec Baldwin), whose
trust in his rising-star protégé is resolute. And then there's that
girlfriend, Madeleine, a police psychiatrist who's as drawn to Costigan's
wounded-bird vulnerability as she is to Sullivan's opaque charm. (She's so
drawn in by the tightly wound Billy that she abandons whatever
professionalism she possesses; at least she's smart enough to transfer him
to another shrink before she sleeps with him.)
The only relationship that doesn't work in the film's favor is the one
between the director and his biggest star. Where Scorsese guides the
Byzantine plot with a sure hand, never letting things become too murky or
confusing, Nicholson blazes with an unsteady intensity that threatens to
capsize the whole carefully calibrated production. While the rest of the
film's marquee names sink into their roles (even DiCaprio, who hasn't been
this good since long before Titanic made him a household name),
Nicholson plays a variation of the same leering satyr he's played for ages.
Nicholson's racist, sexually voracious and morally skewed Costello (who
doesn't even remotely come across as the Irish-American he's supposed to be)
chews the scenery -- albeit with an admitted sense of something resembling
restraint -- with the same iconic gusto and devilish grin he's employed
since before his primary costars were born. At every turn, his gleeful
hamming pulls the viewer right out of the movie, turning us into observers
of his act instead of pushing us deeper into the film.
But the antics of the man who is arguably the world's most recognizable
movie star are balanced by the uniformly exemplary work of his castmates.
Damon perfectly inhabits the seemingly soulless Colin, and DiCaprio hasn't
been as heartbreaking, as riveting, since The Basketball Diaries or
even What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Wahlberg is especially notable in a
role that becomes progressively more ambiguous; Sheen, Baldwin, Ray Winstone
and even Anthony Anderson (in a small but ultimately tragically memorable
turn) make the most of their comparatively limited screen time.
That well-honed equilibrium -- the movie's precarious balancing act between
megastars and memorable characters -- is offset in its own way by the
movie's final ten minutes, a particularly bleak and violent stretch (which
drew shocked laughter in the screening this writer attended), capped by a
groaner of a last shot, a too-obvious visual meant, presumably, as a playful
wink. Fortunately, Scorsese and his cast have banked enough goodwill to keep
us from falling back out of the film's painstakingly maintained reality.
Besides which, by that point we've been trained well enough to recognize yet
one more example of life's often harsh balance at work.
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