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Rats in a Cage

Everyone’s going to hell in The Departed, and Martin Scorsese has fun killing them off along the way.

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Illustration by Ateliér  

Closely patterned on the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed has an ingenious pretzeled symmetry. The story, transplanted to Boston, centers on two youngish deep-cover agents, a cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) posing as a mobster, and a mobster (Matt Damon) posing as a cop. The first surreptitiously alerts the police captain (Martin Sheen) that a deal is going down, then the second alerts the crime boss (Jack Nicholson) that the cops are on the way. Then the first alerts the captain that the mobsters know the cops are on the way, then the second alerts the crime boss that the cops know the mobsters know the cops are on the way. You can see how things might get tricky, particularly as each rat becomes aware that he has a rat-doppelgänger on the opposite side and attempts to sniff him out. Plenty of movies and TV shows portray the paranoia and loss of identity that come with undercover life. But this one has double-double mirror-image variables to mess with the characters’ heads—and by the way, I mean that literally: The last film with so many geysers of brain matter featured Freddy squaring off against Jason.

Major American auteurs don’t usually sign on to do remakes of foreign hits. My guess is that what attracted Scorsese—apart from the paycheck—was the chance to fashion a fast, mean, relatively impersonal crime thriller in which everyone is damned to hell. There’s no mercy—not even for the audience. (The movie’s theme song is the Stones’s “Gimme Shelter.”) William Monahan’s dialogue is Mamet-speak played at Alvin and the Chipmunks speed with a broad Boston accent. While characters spit yahmuthahfuckedme expletives into one another’s faces (along with peculiar citations of Shakespeare, Freud, and James Joyce), Scorsese and his fab house editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, drive the action brusquely. They cut from Costigan (DiCaprio) to Sullivan (Damon) to Costigan to Sullivan, with each man in the same location in the frame. They can hardly sit still in the present; they leap around in time, splintering a moment into its antecedent and aftermath. They chuck in random splattery head shootings and bashings—like demitasses of espresso in the middle of a long road trip.

The movie works smashingly, especially if you haven’t seen its Hong Kong counterpart and haven’t a clue what’s coming. But for all its snap, crackle, and pop, it’s nowhere near as galvanic emotionally. The star of Infernal Affairs, Tony Leung, had the stillness of a volcano; in the film Hero, he made practicing calligraphy seem fiery. DiCaprio, as good as he is, is on the lumpish side. He has a wide face and lots of brow to furrow, but Scorsese doesn’t linger on him long enough to help us connect with his feverish alienation. It’s easier to read Damon, with his darting little eyes and slippery-squirt smile, but we don’t give a fig about him. Monahan has made the character more of an out-and-out villain—a conscienceless opportunist—than he was in the original. Sullivan hungers for a career in politics. He has no loyalty to anyone, not even his surrogate-father crime boss, and so he has no dramatic stature. Plus, he’s lousy in bed.

The Departed clocks in at two and a half hours, yet it’s two and a half hours of jabber and jolt; even the scenes between Costigan and the court-appointed shrink he tumbles for (the vivid, blue-eyed Vera Farmiga) degenerate into insult-fests. Classical conductors speak of the ability to “sustain the long line”—to stay measured, to resist the impulse to break a passage up into too many climaxes. Scorsese, brilliant as he is, isn’t a long-line kind of guy. He’s a fits-and-starts man, and he and Monahan blow the film’s intricate centerpiece, in which both undercover agents, under tight scrutiny, tap out messages to their bosses on concealed cell phones. The sequence doesn’t have much kick because it doesn’t have much clarity, and it ends abruptly, with a shrug.

The Departed has enough tension to keep you engrossed, though, and enough color for ten crime pictures. Scorsese obviously adores his expensive, expansive ensemble, and this is one of the few films in which the actors’ over-the-top Boston accents actually enhance the performances. Sheen, with his grayish hair swept back, does a puttering little avuncular number that’s hugely likable, and, as his snarling sergeant, Dorchester native Mark Wahlberg gets back in touch with his inner Southie delinquent and almost steals the picture. But he’s matched, expletive for expletive, by Alec Baldwin as the head of the police task force—preening happily, his diction overdeliberate, his twinkling self-infatuation contagious.

Now that Nicholson’s Mulholland Drive neighbor Marlon Brando has given up the ghost, there’s no one on earth whose appetites seem as mythic. As the crime boss Frank Costello, he looks great. Not healthy, but not puffy—haggard in ways that make him more magnetic than ever, and with burning eyes. The Boston accent does wonders for him—it keeps him from slipping into that familiar lazy singsong. In the first half of The Departed, when Nicholson plays it straight and self-contained, he’s shockingly effective, and very scary. I wish Scorsese had nixed the idea to have him swing a big dildo as a gag in a porn theater. As Costello becomes more unhinged, he also becomes more Jack, and we know you can’t kill Jack with ordinary bullets.


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