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The Departed

January 22, 2014

The Departed (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Actors: Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson

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Synopsis: Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is a young man who has grown up under the tutelage of Boston gangster, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Sullivan covertly works his way into the State police as a means of providing intelligence to Costello and helping him evade capture. Little does Costello know that his new street recruit Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a mole planted in his organisation by the State police, so they can gain evidence to build a prosecution case against him.

Review: For the third feature film in a row (following on from Gangs of New York and The Aviator) Martin Scorsese has saddled himself with a dense, grandiose ‘American’ narrative, and though possessing flashes of genius and inspiration, The Departed ultimately winds up being an indigestible rich pudding of a movie.

The main problem is the sheer breadth of plot, characterisation and social history it tries to cram in (incidentally, Infernal Affairs, the stellar Hong Kong actioner on which this was based, had a leanness and storytelling efficiency that The Departed sorely lacks.) The Departed would have been much better suited to the longer running time of a serial TV format. Instead, it elapses in a strange way, with the first 60% of the film feeling like an extended introduction with lots of exposition, leaving the last 40% as its conclusion (there’s no real ‘middle’ in this movie.) Thus, certain plot revelations that were supposed to be much more weighty and profound (spoiler alert: Costello is an FBI informant) fall flat, and the merging of Sullivan and Costigan’s love interest into the same person creates a flaky plot device of a character (despite Vera Farmiga’s best attempts to flesh out her psychiatrist role.)

Also, in Infernal Affairs, the triad mole in the police department played by Andy Lau was a much more ambiguous, morally compromised, tragic figure, where as in The Departed, Matt Damon’s identical character is portrayed far too unfavourably and villainously: the suggestion is he’s practically impotent in bed (unlike DiCaprio’s stud) and a rat appears in the final scene to unsubtly signify the status of his character. Even the Wahlberg/Baldwin power-talking/braggadocio sequences aren’t quite as spectacularly funny as some commentators would have you believe – more a poor knock-off of that other Alec Baldwin-featuring film about angry white men in suits, Glengarry Glen Ross.

If all that criticism sounds harsh, it’s only because the quality of the material and some of Scorsese’s execution is so promising. And it is still a dynamic, exciting and fantastically acted piece. You’ve got to love Jack Nicholson’s epic opening voiceover to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, and incidentally, on repeat viewing, Nicholson’s performance isn’t the unrestrained, hammy turn many critics took it to be; it’s reasonably rounded and plausible, and his relaxed demeanour makes sense when considered against the late twist (which many viewers overlooked in the film’s rushed focus on the two moles’ trajectory) that he’s actually a protected FBI informant. (January 2014)

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