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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Scorsese Scores with 'Departed'

How long can you live a lie? What if you're living a lie for the right reasons? These are the questions asked by The Departed, Martin Scorsese's new film about traitors on both sides of the law in Boston. A remake of the 2002 film Infernal Affairs, Scorsese effectively transfers the action from Hong Kong to Massachusetts, doing so with the style and sure-handedness that we would expect from one of the world's top living directors.

The film's basic premise is taken directly from the original: two cops are forced to go undercover, but not in the way you might think. One of them, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, pretends to be a gangster in order to spy on crimelord Jack Nicholson. The other, played by Matt Damon, is a cop who is tipping off Nicholson. Each is faced with rooting out the other.

This sets up a thriller that unfolds with constant surprises. The cops know what Nicholson is up to because of DiCaprio, and Nicholson knows what the cops are up to because of Damon. This sets up several very clever suspense sequences, as each side thinks it's one step ahead of the other. I won't say more about the plot, since so much of it depends on surprise, but it kept me guessing the whole way through.

More importantly, the movie is wonderfully directed. Scorsese has never really stopped being a great director, but this is probably his best film in a long while. It moves at a fast pace, cross-cutting between the two characters and covering a lot of plot points quickly.

It's a fairly restrained Scorsese, without a lot of virtuoso camera moves, but only a master director could possibly assemble a 150-minute movie in such a way that it feels like 90 minutes. From almost the very beginning, the movie is engaging and never seems to let up. That said, there is very little action — most of the suspense comes from wondering if one of the characters will get discovered.

In lesser hands, the movie could have been a wreck. But Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker are able to keep characters and events distinct, and in a few tense scenes Scorsese is able to milk a lot of suspense by keeping us wondering if one character is about to walk in on another. Knowing where each character is in relation to another is a tricky thing to convey in movies, and Scorsese is able to convey this information effortlessly.

Also helping things are wonderful performances from a number of top-notch actors. The three leads are all pitch perfect, and while some critics have been down on Nicholson's performance as being too over-the-top, I thought it was about right for the role. Sure, a more subdued character would have worked, but nobody does over-the-top crazy like Jack Nicholson. And he does create an original character — his Frank Costello in this movie is not a retread of Jack Torrance or The Joker.

The supporting cast is also great. It includes Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin. A relatively unknown actress named Vera Farmiga also has a strong turn as a police psychiatrist who becomes involved with both cops.

Ultimately the movie is also an effective psychological portrait of what happens to people who are forced to lie in order to survive. We all tell lies from time to time, but what would happen if we had to lie constantly about our very nature? Damon and especially DiCaprio do a good job of conveying the strain their roles place upon their psyches.

In my mind, The Departed is an early front-runner for my pick of the best film of 2006. Dark, gritty, and unrelenting, it's the rare thriller that is every bit as smart and interesting as its premise.

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