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Duality Bites

 

The Departed

Martin Scorsese, USA, 2006

Rating: 4.4

 

Posted: October 10, 2006

By 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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