It's no grand insight to point out that when we see an established actor in a given role, we watch that person with ghosts of all his or her previous roles in sight. While to a certain point this gives many actors a bye (we are willing to be generous in our appraisal of their current work) it is easy for an actor to fall into her own stereotype and dismantle a movie they're in because they seem to be still in their last one. So when you assemble a grade-A list of talent for a movie and cast them in familiar roles, you are flirting with disaster.
The cast of Scorsese's new crime drama The Departed seems to know this all too well. At one point, Alec Baldwin, playing the charismatic trash-talking cop boss, grabs at his crotch in a gesture reminiscent of his role in Glengarry Glenn Ross, and Jack Nicholson as a villainously philosophical crime boss has many opportunities to phone in some psycho. But while neither Baldwin nor Nicholson, nor Martin Sheen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, or Mark Wahlberg turn in a truly atypical performance, each is thoroughly enjoyable, focused and integrated with the world of the movie (if you forgive the occasional here-and-gone Boston accent from non-natives like Nicholson). DiCaprio is especially convincing and a pleasant surprise, and Wahlberg's performance is so spot-on in its strangeness that one almost hopes he gets his own spin-off TV show, something like Dignam Tells It Like It Is.
From the other side of the camera, Martin Scorsese follows suit. It is difficult to find a Scorsese movie that does not launch into some formalist flights of fancy to varying degrees of success, whether it's the straight-overhead tracking shot at the end of Taxi Driver, the boxing-as-ballet sequences of Raging Bull, or the freeze frames of Goodfellas. The Departed has none of these, though; its visual and aural styles are distinctly Scorsese, but as with the performances, the power comes not through unexpected leaps but through the expected steps performed exceptionally well.
The script, adapted by Kingdom of Heaven's William Monahan from Siu Fai Mak and Felix Chong's 2002 Hong Kong film Wu Jian Do (itself indebted to Scorsese like many Hong Kong crime movies) is structured like Hamlet or any other Elizabethan revenge tragedy, with a long setup of intrigue and a flurry of action and impressive body count at the end. Along the way, Monahan enlivens the proceedings with high-quality wit and a good eye for character and pacing, no easy tasks considering that like in so many cops-and-robbers movies, each character is just a minor variation on a familiar type.
Uniformly good execution allows for the creation of something better than the sum of its parts. What makes The Departed such a quality movie is not because it does anything uniquely outstanding, but because it fuses all the elements of filmmaking--writing, directing, acting, cinematography, sound design, makeup--into a meaningful and engrossing whole.
There are gaps, of course. Vera Farmiga, who recently appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine for a story on the lack of substantive parts for women, demonstrates that lack clearly. Not in her performance, though. As a character, she stands next to men who have their psychology painstakingly mapped out for them, while she is forced to bridge great chasms of motivation simply through sheer talent. She manages to do so, a testament to her extraordinary skill, but it is clear that the movie is about the men, and her job is simply to get us past a handful of plot points as the real heroes make their way towards (no real spoiler here) their bloody apotheosis.
Along the two-and-a-half hour journey, the movie engrosses, at times even enthralls, but in its flurry to wrap itself up, fails to move us. It doesn't give us enough time or details to identify with any character or set of characters, and the kitchen-drawer themes of identity and he-who-does-evil-for-the-sake-of-good seem to be thrown in because, well, every good movie has to have some heavy themes, right?
But so what? The film may not be moving in an emotional sense, but it draws you in and gives you little reason to wander away. With an architectural solidity, each of The Departed's individual components is superbly crafted yet subordinate to the greater whole. Its great success is its own sense of itself. One sees too many films where the actors all seem to be in a different movie, where the script lurches in and out of focus, where the cinematographer seems more concerned with showing off his prowess than in showing us a scene. Movies like The Departed should be celebrated and treated as examples of exemplary craftsmanship, and while we wait for those movies which will change our lives, we can enjoy these that just make our lives a lot more entertaining.