Let me just throw out a couple of tidbits about my thoughts on the man himself. I consider Scorsese to be probably the greatest American director, and I'm pretty sure the greatest living director. When it comes to intensity, use of dialogue and violence, I'm not sure any director comes close. (Only Stanley Kubrick, Joel & Ethan Coen and Quentin Tarantino, respectively, can compare in each category.) In my very humble opinion, you could make the case that Marty made the best movie of the 1970s (Taxi Driver), the best movie of the '80s (Raging Bull) and the best movie of the '90s (GoodFellas, which I think might be the best American movie I've ever seen).
The last decade hasn't been as transcendent to Marty, as he's contributed flawed (but still often compelling) cinema like Bringing Out the Dead, Kundun, Gangs of New York and The Aviator. All the films were interesting, and some had some exhilarating moments (the opening of Gangs of New York, the flight scenes in The Aviator), but none felt like a Scorsese flick. The last true Scorsese movie was Casino.
I can say with authority that The Departed is a Scorsese movie. It has all the elements. Of course, for those of us who know and love old Marty, those elements are:
- A blazing rock soundtrack (usually involving the Rolling Stones for some reason)
- Crackling, profane, vulgar dialogue
- Lots of bloody violence
- A sweeping cinematic scope, both in visual presentation and in narrative
- A flawed (blonde) female protagonist
- Slow motion, freeze-frame and tracking shots
It's the movie Scorsese fans have been waiting for. Instead of New York's Little Italy, it takes place in the Irish neighborhoods of Boston. In the great tradition of Scorsese villains (Jimmy the Gent, Nicky Santoro, Max Cady, etc), Jack Nicolson's Frank Costello might be the most terrifying yet. He oozes nihilistic power, a portrait of someone with nothing to lose, but the bloodlust to get everything he wants. He is funny, but horrifying; repellent, but charming. I think it's one of Jack's five best performances, and that's saying something.
The movie does what the best Scorsese movies do: it grabs you by the throat in the first five minutes and never lets go. The first scene shows Frank Costello recruiting a young Boston boy to learn the ropes of his gang. Costello is a menacing, intense presence, and you could see how a working class boy could easily be sucked in. But there is no let-up. The movie doesn't simply have a riveting beginning and then settle in (like Infernal Affairs, the excellent but slightly inferior Hong Kong movie upon which The Departed is based). It starts intensely, and then just builds upon the intensity, with no break, no pause, no indication that "we are going to start the real movie now." It's simply relentless.
If you don't know, the plot of the movie in a nutshell is this: Matt Damon is a member of an Irish gang who goes through cop school to become a mole for Costello's Irish gang. Leo DiCaprio is a straight-arrow cop from a working class (i.e. violent) family who is coerced by the cops to become a plainclothes undercover cop. Neither young cop knows about the other, and the film is a cat and mouse game wherein each cop must try to not get caught.
Scorsese's brilliance is exhibited in the contrast between the ivory-tower, white-collar police big shots, and the dirty, low-level Irish hoods. The cops live in high rise apartments with balconies, and work in pristine metal buildings with views of the entire city. The hoods hang out in townie bars, burst into unsuspecting drug dealers' filthy apartments, and kill with impunity. In some ways, they couldn't be more different. But in other ways, they are identical. Both groups go through ethical crises, yet both have a certain working integrity about them.
Something has to be said about the acting in this movie as well. Every single performance is perfect. Matt Damon is a flawless mix of detached malice and conflict. DiCaprio's character falls apart at the seams but in some ways relishes his role as a good guy who has to play a bad guy; as if somehow his "id" is allowed to sneak out a little at a time. Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin steal the scenes they are in. Every performance is essentially flawless. And Scorsese, the virtuoso that he is, somehow finds a way to mix the horror and the humor of death in several scenes, many of which are both shocking and funny simultaneously.
Essentially, if you love Marty Scorsese's movies, you will love this one. It's a return to his days of glory. And while I'm not quite ready to anoint it as the best movie of the 2000s yet, it's possibly the best movie of the year, and certainly merits attention as a prime example of excellent movie making for the decade.
Welcome back Marty.
By the way, here are Scorsese's ten best movies, in order:
- Raging Bull
- Taxi Driver
- The Departed (I don't care if this is premature)
- The Last Temptation of Christ
- Mean Streets
- The Aviator
- Gangs of New York
- The King of Comedy
Rent all of them.