Directed by Martin Scorsese, written by William Monahan, 150 minutes, rated R.
Finally, the race is on. The battle for Best Picture begins with Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” an outstanding return to form that might, in the end, prove too violent for the Academy to embrace fully, but which nevertheless will be nominated across the board in several major categories.
The film, which screenwriter William Monahan based on the underseen 2002 Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs” (itself a spin on Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”), spiders through the darkest corners of South Boston, where it digs into that city’s underworld in ways that make Boston’s Big Dig look shallow in comparison.
In its most streamlined form, the film’s monster of a plot conspires to protect and to bring down one man – crime boss Frank Costello (a perfectly sleazy Jack Nicholson), who lives the sort of double life favored by a few other men in the movie.
On one level, Frank could be viewed as just a successful businessman, somebody who has done well with restaurants, pubs, porn. On another level, the one in which he thrives, he sells contraband to the East and is the mastermind behind a major drug cartel.
For added flavor, he sports the sort of wily fright wig that recalls Nick Nolte’s infamous 2002 mug shot when he was busted for drunken driving, and he is more than content to enter a room with his hands and forearms drenched in blood, obviously from some off-screen murder gone well.
Since Frank could never remain a free man on his own, his army is formidable, with the key element being Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), the man Frank shrewdly groomed when he was just a boy. It’s Colin, a rising star at the police department, who works the inside angles for Frank, alerting him to each investigation that threatens to bring him down. He’s Costello’s mole.
For Frank, what’s becoming increasingly clear is that the department has its own mole. He doesn’t know who it is – in part, the movie’s narrative drive comes from Frank and Colin trying to find out, but we know. It’s Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was hired by an elite undercover unit led by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg to get enough dirt on Costello to lock him away forever.
What stems from this is a movie that steams with excellence. Scorsese hasn’t just returned to his roots in “The Departed.” Instead, he has brashly pulled them out of his beloved New York and punched them down deeper in Boston, a new city and a new muse with its own mysteries and rhythms whose unfamiliarity has allowed the director the freedom to do some of his best work.
He isn’t alone. Throughout, the casting and the performances are flawless; there’s the sense that everybody came to have a good time, and not at the cost of cheating their characters of nuance or depth. Monahan’s dialogue is particularly good, so in-your-face raunchy and real, it joins Scorsese and company in making this terrific, bloody, 21/2-hour movie feel among the leanest and most compelling thus far this year.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
Directed by Robert Altman, written by Garrison Keillor, 105 minutes, rated PG-13.
Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion” is set within the closed world of radio performed on the stage, with the audience in attendance watching what will be the last performance of a long-running radio show. Given the ripe possibilities for real theater to explode at such an event, the movie sounds as if it might offer the juice of, say, Altman’s “Gosford Park.” It doesn’t.
Sometimes you appreciate the film for Altman’s typical breezy looseness and disregard for structure. Other times you wish a snake would cut across this “Prairie” and bite somebody on the ankle, if only to liven up a movie seriously in need of dramatic tension.
The film, which screenwriter Garrison Keillor based on his popular public radio program, is little more than a sweetly nostalgic, mildly entertaining diversion. It’s virtue is its cast, which includes the great Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, as well as John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson as two singing cowboys, Lefty and Dusty.
Backed by Keillor, who plays a mirror image of himself as GK, these five leave the strongest impression in a movie otherwise filled with blank slates. The thin plot is an afterthought. The theater has been purchased by an out-of-town businessman named the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), who cometh to put the kibosh on the theater and an era. Running security at the joint is Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), who is the only person to have any interaction with the Axeman, not that there’s much of it since each actor is squandered here.
Faring no better is an expressionless Virginia Madsen as a ghostly angel of death, who roams the theater’s halls cinched into a white trench coat, her weirdly disconnected performance is the movie’s biggest letdown. As Streep’s disgruntled daughter, Lola, who writes punchy poems about suicide, Lindsay Lohan slumps in chairs and generally looks unhappy until she’s given the chance to sing onstage, where still she struggles to come alive. Maya Rudolph of “Saturday Night Live,” however, is nicely cast as a pregnant, gum-snapping producer.
Visit www.weekinrewind.com, the archive of Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s reviews, which appear Mondays in Discovering, Fridays in Happening, and Weekends in Television. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.