The Departed (Warner Bros., R)

Even for Scorsese purists, who talk about the good old days of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, his latest film The Departed will be more than just a return to form; it'll likely be considered a new career high point.

 

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Watching a master filmmaker at work is different from any other moviegoing experience. Some movies surprise you, some disappoint, but when you sit down to watch a new film by Martin Scorsese, the dean of American directors, you can relax and rest assured that you're probably gonna see something worthwhile. Scorsese's level of craftsmanship is at such a high level that he's earned the trust of both audiences and critics, who generally forgive him even when his films are somewhat uneven or self-indulgent (charges leveled at both Gangs of New York and The Aviator, among his recent output). But even for Scorsese purists, who talk about the good old days of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, his latest film The Departed will be more than just a return to form; it'll likely be considered a new career high point. For this is one electrifying, viscerally powerful film that returns Scorsese to a cinematic milieu he knows like the back of his hand-organized crime in the big city (in this case, Boston).

The big news here is that Scorsese works with acting legend Jack Nicholson for the first time. Nicholson plays Irish mob boss Frank Costello, a ruthless and maniacal thug with few redeeming qualities (other than the sense of edgy humor ol' Jack invests him with). A young cop named Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is sent to infiltrate Costello's domain at great peril, after an ultra-tense meeting with volatile Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and the slightly more empathetic Police Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen), the only two men on the force aware of Costello's dangerous mission. Meanwhile, there's a mole from the opposite side of the law, too: Costello's disciplined protégé Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who has earned the trust of most of his colleagues in the police department and is therefore in an ideal position to feed critical information back to his impatient boss. But as evidence builds that there's a traitor on both sides, tension increases dramatically—especially for Costigan and Sullivan. Coincidentally, each becomes involved with an intelligent but vulnerable psychologist named Madolyn (Vera Farmiga)—Sullivan as her lover, Costigan as a patient. This device allows us to learn deeper aspects of the character of these two tightrope-walking antagonists, who are in a race against time to learn about the other before all hell breaks loose.

Hell does indeed break loose, of course—this is Scorsese we're talking about—but a couple of things elevate matters to a higher level here. First of all, Scorsese keeps the tension mounting throughout the film, giving both the baddies and the frenzied Boston Police Department scenes of acerbic dialogue and beautifully staged confrontations. The pacing is immaculate, and the final half hour is one of the most thrilling, powerhouse pieces of celluloid the acclaimed director has ever rendered. Nothing goes quite the way you expect, and the sheer cumulative impact of the visceral storytelling should make any Scorsese fan positively giddy. When guns blaze in a Scorsese film, they sound and feel so vividly authentic that you almost reel from the impact. The violence, while considerable, is never gratuitous, and always impactful the way actual violence would be.

And hey, how about a word or two for these amazing actors? It's well documented that stars jump for the chance to work for Marty; he always gets the best from his cast. Nicholson can act in his sleep, of course, but he's a terrifyingly believable crime boss, a sadistic monster who thinks he's entitled to his throne and determined to keep it at any cost. "I haven't needed money since I took Archie's milk money in third grade," he tells Costigan after the youngster questions him on the fine points of empire building by force. Nicholson does get a few of his patented laughs, but this is a rough, dark turn by him, not a hammy one. DiCaprio turns in what is likely his best performance ever, a beautifully nuanced showcase of coiled tension, nerve-jangling maneuverings between two opposing worlds and periodic moments of barely allowed vulnerability. Damon is more studiously confident, an all too crafty crumb bum determined to let nothing get to him, or his boss. Damon's unwavering and thoroughly disciplined throughout. Wahlberg, while not appearing in that many scenes, is ferociously abrasive and delivers a couple of the film's major kicks to the gut. And the expected fine work is served up by Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone as Costello's brutally direct right hand man Mr. French, and others.

The script by William Monahan, based on the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, crackles with gritty life and coarse dialogue; Thelma Schoonmaker's editing (she's been Scorsese's editor for many years) has never been tighter, and should earn her an Oscar nomination. If there's any justice, in fact, the Oscar-less Scorsese should finally take the prize this year—everything the director has made his stock in trade is showcased in unforgettable fashion in The Departed. Tough, edgy, and blazing with dangerous life, The Departed is a killer of a film, probably Scorsese's best since Goodfellas.

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