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A Place in the World

The new Scorsese and a film about Idi Amin share a theme: young men in search of themselves.


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The Departed sss

Directed by Martin Scorsese | Written by William Monahan | With Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson, and Alec Baldwin

The Last King of Scotland ssss

Directed by Kevin MacDonald | Written by Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan from a novel by Giles Foden | With Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson, and Simon McBurney

Martin Scorsese's underworld thriller The Departed opens with a voice-over from its larger-than-life villain, a Boston crime lord played by Jack Nicholson who declares, "I don't want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me." It's the most personal statement in this highly commercial movie: Scorsese's most popular and critically acclaimed films have defined the violent urban drama (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas), but through a series of ambitious and eclectic projects he's resisted being defined by it himself (The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, Kundun). One needn't be a ruthless mobster or a restless film director to understand these antithetical urges--we all yearn to belong somewhere, but that sense of belonging always exacts a price, usually in the form of allegiance. If ever a Scorsese film was one for the fans, The Departed is it. You can just imagine him lining up the next head-splat gunshot scene, muttering, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!"

A remake of the 2002 Hong Kong cult hit Infernal Affairs, The Departed transplants the action to South Boston, but the location doesn't really matter; the two operative cultures here are the state police and a local mob run by the monstrous old-timer Frank Costello (Nicholson). The complicated plot involves two young spies, each groomed for years to infiltrate the opposing side. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a promising but volatile young cadet with family ties to Costello, is recruited by the upstanding Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) for a years-long undercover mission: he'll be convicted of felony assault and expelled from the force, and after serving a prison term he'll work his way into Costello's gang. But long before this plot is hatched, Costello is positioning his own rat: Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a loyal kid from the neighborhood who becomes a state trooper and wins an assignment to a special investigative unit on organized crime. Neither spy knows the other's identity, and as each settles into his secret life he begins to lose track of himself.

It's a classic doppelganger setup: Sullivan and Costigan may be mortal enemies, but they have more in common with each other than with anyone else. Sullivan is orphaned and living with his grandmother when Costello comes into his life, and the mobster's patronage gives him a sense of place that's worth more than any amount of easy money. Costigan had spent his childhood shuttling between his mother's North Shore home and his father's low-rent digs in Southie, and for him a state police uniform is a symbol of stability. Both young men identify strongly with their respective father figures, and each is confronted with the paradoxical situation of defining himself by posing as something he's not. ("We deal in deception," Queenan tells Costigan. "What we do not deal with is self-deception.") For each character the rub comes when his patriarch is suddenly removed from the equation and his link to his original identity is erased--the cop suddenly finds himself mired in a life of crime, and the criminal is safely ensconced in the law enforcement community.

With its welter of double crosses, The Departed is completely engrossing, a master class in suspense. But in moral terms it may be the least involving story that Scorsese--an artist much preoccupied with morality--has ever taken on. Costigan spends years working for Costello, unencumbered by the legal restrictions of being a sworn policeman, but he's never forced to do anything that truly repulses him; his only on-screen transgressions are a few beat downs of scumbags who have it coming anyway. Sullivan takes advantage of his badge to romance a lively police psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga), but the relationship never prompts him to examine what he's doing with his life. The mentors are comparably one-dimensional: Queenan is a devout Catholic with sepia-toned photos of old-time cops hanging in his modest home, Costello's a depraved hedonist who flings handfuls of cocaine over his nude girlfriend. In keeping with the story's obsessive symmetry, The Departed seems to operate on two distinct levels, as a dumbly pleasurable game of cops and robbers and a coldly cerebral Skinnerian exercise. Scorsese seems to acknowledge as much in his final shot, a punning image of a rat skittering across a railing.

The Last King of Scotland also tells the story of a young man who falls under the sway of a charismatic leader--in this case Idi Amin, the brutal dictator who terrorized Uganda in the 70s. The compelling Glaswegian actor James McAvoy (Rory O'Shea Was Here, The Chronicles of Narnia) plays Nicholas Garrigan, a fictional Scotsman with a newly minted medical degree whose taste for adventure and resentment of his father, a bourgeois physician, propel him to Uganda in 1971. He works briefly at a small clinic but soon grabs a more prestigious post: personal physician to Amin, who has just staged a successful coup against President Milton Obote. Forest Whitaker gives a titanic performance as the general--by turns charming and sinister, vulnerable and vengeful--and as he seduces the naive young man into his murderous regime, director Kevin Macdonald unpacks the ignorance and arrogance that still characterize the West's attitude toward Africa.

Garrigan may be a fool, but he's more human than anyone in The Departed. Captivated by the sights and sounds of Uganda, he first experiences Amin at a colorful rally where the general wows the crowd with his exuberant nationalism. Amin, a devoted fan of Scottish culture since his days in the British army, wins over the doctor by appealing to their common resentment of England. When a crisp British diplomat (Simon McBurney) approaches Garrigan to spy on the general, the doctor rebuffs him, arguing that the UK is galled by the prospect of a truly independent Uganda. Flattering himself an anticolonialist allows Garrigan to discount the money, women, and prestige that accompany his growing importance as Amin's adviser. But his illusions begin to fade after he warns the general about a colleague's possible treachery and the man is disappeared. Amin brushes off the doctor's protestations of ignorance: "Do not pretend to yourself that you did not know. You are a stronger man than that." By the time Garrigan learns about the death squads roaming Uganda in search of Obote loyalists, his apartment has been ransacked and his British passport stolen.

Of course no Western director can make a movie about Africa without being accused of colonialism himself, and some critics have faulted The Last King of Scotland for focusing on its white hero as black corpses pile up around him. But although the movie takes place on an international political stage, it's still a drama of individual allegiance. Amin seems just as confused about his proper place as Garrigan: he may proclaim himself the father of Uganda, but he also fancies himself the last king of Scotland and stages bagpipe concerts in the middle of equatorial Africa. In real life, by the end of the decade he'd been overthrown, fleeing first to Libya, then Saudi Arabia, where he died in exile in 2002. The danger in trying to find a place you truly belong is that you might wind up nowhere at all.


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