As Good As It Gets
The Departed / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | October 16, 2006 | Comments ()
I have to admit, I was a little worried there for a while about Martin Scorsese. He hadn’t exactly gone soft — no one who could orchestrate the orgy of bloodletting that was Gangs of New York could ever be accused of being soft — but he had begun to lose his moorings a bit. The dazzling Casino couldn’t help but recall his modern masterpiece GoodFellas, but Bringing Out the Dead was just alienating, as if Scorsese himself couldn’t find the meaning behind the story and decided to pull out all the technical stops in hopes no one would notice. (We did.) Similarly, The Aviator, which reteamed the director with Leonardo DiCaprio, was an overlong biopic that never really knew where it wanted to go (though Scorsese’s No Direction Home was a masterful look at early Bob Dylan). Scorsese is a filmmaker of phenomenal talent, but he had abandoned the gritty tales of urban crime and immigrant strife that had propelled him to the top, and in doing so began to lose touch with the pulsing heart that had shone through in his classics. That’s what makes his The Departed, adapted from 2002’s Hong Kong smash Infernal Affairs, such a pleasure to watch: It’s not just a fantastic, frenetic police-and-thieves thriller, but also a welcome return to form for one of the best American directors working today.
The film leaps into the fray from the first frame, slamming down into the streets of Boston in the recent past, oozing with the sweat of the city and set to the backbeat of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a local kingpin dealing in all kinds of criminal activity, lectures his lieutenants about the meaning of life, stalking the shadows like the devil himself. Frank stops by a diner to collect his protection payoff and confronts young Colin Sullivan in the process, and he persuades the boy to come to work for him. Scorsese seems to bend the light away from Nicholson until the moment Frank steps forward to tell the boy that, when there’s a gun pointed at your head, it doesn’t matter if you’re a cop or a criminal. The boy eats it up, and Scorsese cuts to years later: Sullivan (Matt Damon) is an officer with the Massachusetts State Police, and he’s still working for Frank. Sullivan makes the leap to detective the same afternoon that Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) is assigned by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to go undercover inside Frank’s gang; Sullivan and Costigan even pass each other casually outside Queenan’s office. The plot flies unrelentingly forward through the prologue, and by the time Scorsese’s finished arranging the pieces, Sullivan is on the rise with the staties and Costigan has been booted from the force to enhance his cover. Such a complex set-up could easily have occupied half the film, but it’s only the beginning of Scorsese’s tightening spiral of violence and deception.
Costigan gets in touch with his cousin, a small-time drug dealer, in an attempt to raise his profile and infiltrate Frank’s outfit. Costigan’s extended family has been steeped in local crime for a couple generations now, and there’s always a sad glint in DiCaprio’s eye as he balances his distaste for his own personal history with a desire to do his job. Costigan eventually earns Frank’s good graces, even as Sullivan and the rest of his task force pursue Frank and his crew. People on both sides of the law are barely keeping it together: It takes only the slightest provocation for the detectives to turn on each other and start swinging in the middle of the office. These paroxysms of violence far outmatch the occasional fights in Infernal Affairs, and add to the sense that everything’s slowly but surely coming unglued. Sullivan is pushed to extremes in his attempts to balance two careers and a relationship with a psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga), and Costigan’s job as a brute enforcer begins to cause serious wear on his psyche.
Scorsese’s technical strengths remain in top form here; he’s always been in love with the means by which a story is told, not just the telling, and his constantly moving camera, careful use of irises, and meticulous use of music are outstanding. Almost every scene is underscored with music, whether the original compositions of Howard Shore or the classic rock and blues that permeate Scorsese’s neighborhoods. The constant music highlights the building pressure and often crushing tension that threatens to overwhelm Sullivan and Costigan as they slip deeper into their artificial lives, and the silence, when it comes, is extraordinary. In this way, Scorsese is the opposite of most directors: When he wants your attention, he whispers.
Scorsese has assembled a wonderful cast that fires on all cylinders. Sheen and Wahlberg are so good at these kinds of supporting roles it’s easy to take them for granted, though anyone would be hard-pressed to outshine Nicholson in a role like this one. Gliding his way through the film, Nicholson is gifted enough to play cruel without going over the top. Damon and DiCaprio are outstanding as well, and their few moments together onscreen are genuinely compelling. Damon’s character has a harder edge than his Infernal Affairs counterpart, a welcome and believable change from screenwriter William Monahan, who tightens up several relationships from the original film while still remaining faithful to much of the source material.
Infernal Affairs was a smart thriller that subverted expectations and used its brain as much as its muscle, but Scorsese’s remake is the ultimate Americanization of the original, in the best and truest sense. Scorsese imbues The Departed with a sense of place and history that the original only hinted at, and he turns the film from a tense drama into a sprawling epic about living in the ruins of the American dream. It’s no accident that Sullivan’s code when he calls Frank is to refer to the mobster as “Dad,” just as Costigan is intentionally orphaned: The two men are more alike than either would care to admit. Scorsese’s film trades in the original’s idealism for a darker view of self-preservation and the inescapability of American vengeance. Frank states in his opening monologue that he wants to affect his environment, and not vice versa, but for Scorsese, environment has always trumped personality. From the Scripture-quoting Charlie Cappa through the willfully ignorant Henry Hill, Scorsese’s men have never been able to break the chains of the neighborhood. Costigan may have a badge, but he can’t outrun the mean streets that made him.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.