It's good. I liked it. Scorsese should finally get his Oscar, though he's made better. The movie has no real ending. The catastrophe that brings about the violent climax depends on several characters suddenly getting far more stupid than we've seen them being to that point, and the level of violence and the body count are almost laughable. Makes me think Scorsese has seen too many of his own movies and traumatized himself---he can no longer judge how to effectively dole it out. Same with the profanity.
I don't know why people said Jack Nicholson's performance as Francis Costello was hammy and over the top, unless they missed the fact that Costello himself is a ham. A self-made made in the sense of being invented out of nothing, Costello is always playing the part of Costello. He's not real to himself, other people aren't real to him either, and the only way he knows to make his life seem like anything to himself is to force himself and the people around him to act out a script he's writing for them on the spot.
He's not a movie gangster, but he plays one in real life.
His counterpart among the cops isn't Martin Sheen's Queenan. It's Mark Wahlberg's Dignam. Dignam is a more self-conscious, more self-aware self-creation. He hands people a script he's written and then judges them by how adept they are at resisting type-casting. Wahlberg is good, but his part is over written.
I'm talking about the part Scorsese gave Wahlberg to play, not the part Dignam's cast himself in.
The writing's sloppy.
Vera Farmiga as the police psychologist who falls for both Matt Damon's and Leonardo DiCaprio's characters is one of the oddest looking romantic leads I've seen in a movie in a long, long time. Skinny, ungraceful, with a long face and a habit of smiling like Stan Laurel. Nice eyes though. She's one of the sexiest too. She quivers with desire in all of her scenes. It might all be acting. It's explains the character.
Madolyn is always open to seduction. When Madolyn's asked why with her superior education, her impressive resume, and obvious talent and intelligence she's working at a thankless job that pays her less than a guidance counselor makes, she brushes off the question with a platitude about public service, as if this is her way of being a police officer and protecting and serving the public. It's the lamest of lies. She's taken the job so she can be around big, strong, dangerous men who might sweep her up off her feet and carry her off to bed at any moment.
She allows every professional conversation she has to become very quickly about her. Private conversations have no other purpose at all. Her first date with Matt Damon's character isn't going well, she seems to have made up her mind that he's not her type at all, but when he jokes that she isn't his type and he doesn't think he'll call her again, she's absolutely crushed.
Needless to say, she comes across as entirely a creation of male fantasies. A beautiful, sexy, intelligent woman who wants to sleep with you just because you're a man and she's a woman and so you don't have to bring anything to the table. But that's not why her character is a complete drag on the movie.
All her scenes stop the movie in its tracks because she is so obviously a device to help Scorsese avoid having to introduce another female character for DiCaprio's character to meet and fall for. Madolyn is, creatively speaking, an act of artistic economizing. I could spend a couple paragaraphs justifying the character's double life thematically, but in the end, that turns out to be the only justification for the character's presence in the movie.
When you get right down to it, all characters are plot devices. But characters who have no purpose in a story except to help move the plot along should not be given much screen time, no matter how idiosyncratically beautiful and sexy the actresses playing them are.
It makes sense that DeCaprio's undercover cop, Billy Costigan, would need to see a psychologist, makes sense that he would fall for one with eyes like Farmiga's, and makes sense that she would be attracted to him strongly enough to forget her professional responsibilities. There is no reason at all that the same character would turn up as the girlfriend of Matt Damon's dirty cop, Colin Sullivan. The only dramatic reason he needs a woman in his life is for her to be there to be lied to as the main piece of furniture in yet another compartment of his insanely compartmentalized life.
Funnily enough, it's in the scenes with Damon, when she's most obviously just a plot device, that Farmiga does her best work and her character is at her most convincing. This is because in her scenes with DiCaprio she's tonally and emotionally and conceptually out of sync.
DiCaprio plays Costigan as being at the very end of his tether. He's operating at just this side of screaming hysteria. Farmiga can't match him twitch for twitch or strip herself down to his level of emotional rawness. It might have been interesting if Scorsese had let Madolyn become infected with Costigan's paranoia and hysteria, but he and Farmiga don't go there.
Their other option, for her to be his comforter, to bring him back to some, at least temporary, form of calm sanity, isn't available either, for the same reason, the limited conception of the character.
All Madolyn can do for Costigan is what she does for all the men who stray into her office, offer herself to him. She continues her trick of being desirable by desiring. The last thing Costigan needs right now is a emotional attachment to yet someone else he can't trust, but that's what she's there for, despite her better judgment. In other words, she fails him and herself professionally. This would make a whole movie in its own right, but it's too much for a subplot, particularly a subplot the director doesn't really care about. Scorsese leaves DiCaprio and Farmiga acting at cross-purposes.
You could say this is partly DiCaprio's fault, as he offers her nothing to connect to. He plays Costigan as repelling all intimacy. There's never any give to him, except, ironically, in his scenes with Nicholson. But this walled-off quality about him is meant to be his tragic flaw. The psychological quirks that make him apparently the perfect choice for an undercover cop are also what make him finally incapable of surviving undercover. Costigan belongs nowhere and to no one except himself. When he reaches the edge, though, he has no one to reach out to and even if someone comes along offering to pull him back he can't bring himself to take their hand.
Given Costigan's situation, it would be dangerous for him to trust anyone too easily, and it's no wonder that the only other character he seems to like and trust to any degree is Nicholson's Francis Costello, the man Costigan's meant to destroy. Because Costello's playing out the script he's written for himself, he's predictable and he's in a perverse way honest. He is always true to his own conception of himself as the gangster's gangster.
DiCaprio does a brilliant job of placing Billy Costigan in a line of movie detectives whose neuroses almost overwhelm their heroism and practically make them the chief villain in their own story---Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, Gene Hackman in The French Connection and The Conversation, and now DiCaprio played their parts entirely without a leading man's vanity, risking losing the audience's sympathy at the outset in order to win us over in the end with a more psychologically compelling and, ultimately, more sympathetic, if not particularly likable, characterization.
But as much as I admired what DiCaprio does in The Departed, I was more impressed by Matt Damon.
Damon's Colin Sullivan is a man divided against himself six ways from Sunday. He's not just living a double life. He's living multiple lives. He's carefully walled each life off from all the others, but in doing so he's walled pieces of himself up inside each compartment. His is a disintegrated personality. Each piece is a lot like the others, and all are like him, but no one piece is him or even a clue to him. The pieces don't fit together like pieces from a puzzle. They are like circles of glass cut from the same pane. Damon's job in The Departed is to play each separate Colin as distinct and yet the same. He has to come across as different, without acting different.
He does this mainly through his smile and his sense of humor. The different Colins smile with different degrees of broadness and sincerity and while they all talk about the same things using the same vocabularies they find different things about what they say funny. What's a joke to one Colin is the occasion of morbid self-pity for another. What one Colin thinks of as the most stern and earnest of businesses, another Colin treats with cynical contempt.
The trickiest part for Damon is that none of the Colins can contain an insight into any of the others, because if you could see any part of one while dealing with another you might accidentally see your way to the crooked cop Colin and that would be the end of all of them.
The telling scene is when Madolyn is moving some of her stuff into his apartment and he refuses to let her put any pictures of herself in the living room. He points out to her that he has no signs of his own past anywhere about. The living room is the one room where the people who know the different Colins would be allowed into and therefore it has to be a room in which any of the different Colins might live. It's a room, then, that offers nothing to look at. It's all surface, highly polished, gleaming, and resistant to the eye. You get tired of looking at it before you've begun to take it all in.
This is the quality that all the different Colins have in common. They are all surface, polished and gleaming, but not anything you want to look at for long. You can take them all in at a glance, convinced that you've seen all there is to see, and are eager and willing when Colin directs your attention to something else, to the view of the gleaming dome of the State House outside the window, for instance.
He can do this redirection so smoothly and charmingly that most people can be tricked into mistaking the beautiful view for the person pointing it out to them.
But he can't trick himself to see himself out there, stare as long and hard as he likes. And he can't see himself when he looks inward either, because it turns out to be a case of a reflection in a mirror looking at itself.
Damon has done a fine job of creating a perfectly hollow man.
It's a neat complement to DiCaprio's characterization of Costigan as a man trapped inside himself. Damon makes Colin Sullivan is a man locked outside his own life, and one of the several Colins Damon manages to create is the one that can only stand apart and watch all the others. That's the real Colin, of course. But that's the Colin that's lost to himself. That's the Colin that's the departed of the title, the departed self.
The Departed. Directed by Martin Scosese. Screenplay by William Monahan. Starring Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Vera Farmiga, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin. Warner Brothers. 2006.
Cross-posted at newcritics.