Maybe you’ve heard the Internet buzz about The Departed being an old-school cop flick, unburdened by profundity. Maybe you’ll think so too if you don’t pay a lick of attention to what’s onscreen. Or maybe you’ll recognize The Departed for what it is: a new American crime classic from the legendary Martin Scorsese, whose talent shines here on its highest beams.
The title card sets the scene: boston. some years ago. And we’re off, watching Leonardo DiCaprio as a cop pretending to be a hood and Matt Damon as his opposite. Both are trapped in circumstances where you can’t tell the good from the bad.
All the actors bring their A games to this triumphant bruiser of a film, its darkly wanton wit the only defense against complete chaos. DiCaprio and Damon give explosive, emotionally complex performances, but it must be said that Jack Nicholson reaches undreamed-of heights of decadent devilment as Irish mob kingpin Frank Costello. Whether he’s wielding a gun or a dildo, buying off cops, dissing Catholic priests as pederasts, seducing children into a life of crime, letting it snow cocaine on favored hookers or chatting while elbow-deep in blood, Nicholson is electrifying. Dispassionately executing a woman on a beach, Costello notes to his henchman Mr. French (a terrific Ray Winstone), “She fell funny.” But Costello is no campy Joker. Channeling James Cagney in White Heat and Paul Muni in Scarface, Nicholson leeches out the glamour to create a landmark portrait of evil.
William Monahan’s stinging script, a revelation after his murky meandering in last year’s Kingdom of Heaven, transfers the plot of the terrific 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs to his native Boston so he can drill down to its depraved core. Those familiar with the gangs of Beantown will see Whitey Bulger — the Irish thug still being pursued by the FBI — in Nicholson’s sick twist of a character. This is vital, visceral filmmaking, indebted to Michael Ballhaus’ vibrant cinematography and Howard Shore’s evocative score, boosted by Scorsese’s typically astute soundtrack choices — a unique uniting of the Stones, John Lennon, Nas, Van Morrison, the Beach Boys and Patsy Cline. And once again, Thelma Schoonmaker turns editing into an art form. She’s the wizard at Scorsese’s side, getting the action to jump off the screen while setting up psychological provocations that reverb hellishly in your head.
Ignore the irrelevant fan-boy questions: Will Scorsese finally win his Oscar? Is The Departed as brilliant as GoodFellas? Is it too gory to be a blockbuster? The Departed, flawed by a few underwritten characters and some overwrought imagery (the symbolic rat), pins you to your seat.
Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Damon), unknown to each other, are both trainees at the Massachusetts State Police Academy. For Billy, it’s a goodbye to the Southies, the South Boston criminal element that formed him. For Colin, it’s a chance to play mole for Costello, who trained him since boyhood. The drama intensifies when Billy is told that he will never wear the Statie uniform. His father figure, Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen), wants Billy to go undercover and infiltrate Costello’s crew. Billy’s identity will be known only by Queenan and his flinty enforcer, Sgt. Dignam (a locked-and-loaded Mark Wahlberg gives a supporting role major dimensions). Colin, who thinks the Statie uniform makes you look “dressed to invade Poland,” joins the suits led by Capt. Ellerby (the reliably superb Alec Baldwin) in the Special Investigations Unit. And so two rookies, assigned to rat out the people they work with, begin to unravel from the strain of maintaining identities antithetical to their true natures.
As in Infernal Affairs, there’s a heap of coincidence. You might want to revoke the film’s dramatic license when Billy and Colin both fall for Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), the shrink who treats Billy and moves in with Colin. Luckily, Farmiga (Down to the Bone) is a glorious actress, a combustible mix of smarts and sex appeal, who reveals that Madolyn is as lost and off-the-rails as the two men.
The violence? Most of it is saved for the film’s final act, where it’s enough to give you whiplash. Scorsese correctly refuses to go wussy on the corruption that extends from Costello’s nest of vipers to the State House, whose gold dome Colin sees from the window of his chic apartment on Beacon Hill. Damon, building on his no-bull turns in Syriana and the two Bourne films, brings a coiled-spring intensity to Colin, whose double life is taking ts toll (for one thing, he’s often impotent). Scorsese allows telling glimpses of the child in these men. Colin dreads betrayal by Costello, the thug who filled his scrawny twelve-year-old arms with groceries and made him his slave. Billy uses drugs to numb his fear but can’t find anything — family, friend, lover, church, government — to trust. DiCaprio does himself proud in a risky role that stabs at the heart as Billy’s bravado loses the battle to his jangling nerves. Though DiCaprio and Damon share only one big scene, their climactic rooftop face-off reflects the film’s bleak view of a world where nothing is held sacred.
Scorsese doesn’t need gore to make his points. A scene with Billy and a vibrating cell phone matches Hitchcock for suspense. Another, deftly borrowed from The Third Man, simply involves Madolyn walking past Colin at a funeral, her impassive gaze deadlier than a speeding bullet. Issues of sin, redemption, identity and loyalty resonate in Scorsese’s films, including the atypical Kundun, Age of Innocence and The Aviator. Each new film absorbs the others, creating a body of work that can stand with the greatest. Scorsese tops the list of American directors because, even when he fails, he strives passionately to make movies that matter. The Departed, a defiantly uncompromised vision of a society rotting from the inside, is one of his best. Act accordingly.