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Just a kiss away

Questions came first.

Is it a pale shadow of Infernal Affairs? Will Scorsese have the guts to sail to the wind and let the bleakness blow through him? Will Nicholson be too much? Will DiCaprio be enough? Can Scorsese make it tight enough for us to feel the pain?

Is it Boston?

Yeah, it’s Boston.

The original was a tense, restrained exercise in suspense and pain. It was good, or better than good. The Departed takes the plot — the same lines, in places — and spills it out on a canvas made of Boston’s racial tensions and class divisions. It’s an equal to its predecessor through an alchemical transformation of mood, theme, and locale. William Monahan is from Boston. He was born ten years before me, which means he grew up watching South Boston riot when black kids showed up at their schools. That’s where the movie opens; that’s where it’s from.

Whitey Bulger came from that. You can’t paint with too wide a brush: you can’t say that South Boston was wholly shaped and driven by the fury of 1974. But Bulger built his organization in an environment full of people who thought that the government had abandoned them; that’s what made it easy. And Nicholson’s Frank Costello is Whitey Bulger, palpably and patently, from the opening footage of the riots to the revelations about his methods.

I’ve read criticisms of the 70s soundtrack. They’re missing the point. It’s a movie about the 70s — Costello is 70 years old, and he’s holding on to the glories he once had, and those glories rise inexorably from what happened then. It’s no mistake that one of the pivotal conversations between him and DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan is about who thinks he could take over for Costello. That conversation reflects Costello’s impending death, whether that death is by gunshot or natural causes. The question asked through both Costigan and Damon’s Sullivan is whether or not Costello’s shadow is long enough to corrupt the newest generation, but it’s not much of a question. Clearly it can.

Infernal Affairs is about duty versus duty. The Departed is about class and the ties that bind. S. drew this distinction between the movies for me: everyone in Infernal Affairs cares about being a cop. In The Departed, they care about getting ahead. Both Damon and DiCaprio are from the same place, and their different paths lead them back to the same place. South Boston, not the police department, is the axis of this movie.

DiCaprio’s the backbone. As far as I’m concerned, he’s gotten away from his glamor. He bulked up, and he plays Costigan with bursts of sudden unrestrained violence. You don’t doubt him. Damon’s merely good, but he’s just fine. He’s so natural in the role that it’s easy to forget that he’s too good-looking and boyish to be able to play a bad guy.

And man, they push against each other well. Rarely sharing screen space, always sharing head space. Ambition versus despair.

Answers. Scorsese had the guts. It was painful, gaudy, two and a half hours of damaged goods filmed with perfect technique. Nicholson was too much here and there, and there again, but if it hadn’t been for his facial expressions — yes, Jack, we know your grin — he’d have been perfect. The physical presence and the voice were what I wanted.

Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor (DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Wahlberg). Not a prediction, but they’re all of that caliber. Best Editing, of course.

The answers were good. Thanks.

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