Superlatives are building up in praise of Martin Scorsese’s new film The Departed. No doubt, however, there will be plenty of people comparing it (unfavorably in all likelihood) to the director’s previous, similarly themed Goodfellas and Casino, as well as the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, of which The Departed is a somewhat loose remake.
Don’t listen to those people. There’s a good probability that fans of Scorsese’s crime-related movies will also enjoy this one, but comparisons are needless and unfair. How can anyone really judge anything they’ve seen only recently and probably only once against something else that’s become a part of cinematic culture and history? Enjoy The Departed for what it is — an electrifying, well-acted story with a dream cast and the most accomplished American director working today.
The story is deceptively simple. Boston mob boss Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson) grooms a young man to become a police officer (Matt Damon) just as the state police set up one of their own (Leonardo DiCaprio) to infiltrate the gangster’s clan. The two men’s paths never cross and eventually both men are given the task of finding their counterpart.
The complexities of this twin paradox are explored with an intriguing amount of gravitas, especially with DiCaprio’s character, Billy Costigan. While Damon’s Colin Sullivan enjoys rising up through the police ranks and his new luxury apartment, Costigan leads the life his father worked tirelessly for his son to avoid. Sullivan is given greater and greater responsibilities on the state police force while Costigan deals with prison, witnessing murders, and unspeakable violence.
It’s not surprising that the female psychotherapist (Vera Farmiga, who will hopefully parlay this somewhat standard role into a higher visibility that allows her to show the acting chops she displayed in last year’s Down to the Bone) becomes interested in both men for different reasons. When Costigan entrusts her with an envelope presumably containing crucial details of the work he’s done, the contrast in how the two men view her is obvious.
DiCaprio is mesmerizing as Costigan, giving essentially two performances and finally showing the intensity that was lacking in some of his other efforts. There’s a particular point in the film where the character is in a nearly impossible situation, closer than ever to having his cover blown and struggling to deal with what has just happened to one of the two men who know he’s a cop. Stripped of a safety net, Costigan’s fear is palpable and DiCaprio is perfect. In fact, I would venture to say that his performance really elevates The Departed from what could have been a much more standard cops-and-gangsters action picture to a film with a hefty amount of emotional depth.
Even though DiCaprio is the standout of the remarkable cast, Nicholson is, as expected, delightfully over-the-top when need be. Because of his iconic status (how many other 69-year-olds would Rolling Stone put on its cover?), Nicholson’s involvement seems to be the most talked about aspect of the picture and the prologue prior to the opening title focuses on his character. Nevertheless, Nicholson does what he should here, which is play an aging, eccentric crime boss brimming with explosive evil.
Damon is also effective, if overshadowed by DiCaprio, although I felt there could have been some more development as to how Sullivan could so blindly follow Costello on the basis of a free bag of groceries. I also never fully believed Damon was truly good as a cop or truly bad as a crook like I could with DiCaprio, who effectively showed a short fuse on more than one occasion while effortlessly switching back to being the tortured hero headcase.
Rounding out the main cast are Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg as the two cops aware of Costigan’s undercover status and Alec Baldwin (who seems to have found his niche as a character actor lately) as Sullivan’s police boss. Wahlberg is certainly entertaining as well, if more so for the insults his character is frequently dishing out than his acting. The always interesting Ray Winstone, who does what he can with a limited role as Costello’s top thug, is here, too.
As the film unfolds, the suspense reaches a fever pitch that lasts right up to the end credits. The ending manages to be mostly satisfying while also leaving a bitter taste. Without going into too much detail, it feels somewhat like a cop-out and, without retaining any artistic ambiguity, fails to completely resolve several questions. It’s probably the film’s weakest segment, even if it had been slowly painting itself into that corner, or one like it, for much of the picture. Nevertheless, the two and a half hours of running time is never excessive, and, given the smart tone and dynamic pacing, I certainly can’t hold screenwriter William Monahan’s decision against him too strongly.
Martin Scorsese’s fingerprints are all over this film, from the early strains of “Gimme Shelter” to the numerous quick and violent deaths. At this point in his career, these directorial touches serve more as comforting reminders of Scorsese’s mastery than attention-grabbing distractions. He’s not repeating himself so much as showing that these kind of men and their actions are what interest him, or at least that this is the type of story he understands and at which he excels. While it may be impossible not to consider his previous work in the gangster genre when thinking about The Departed, the new film just builds on his impressive career and legacy. I never imagined my lofty expectations could possibly be met, yet somehow Scorsese managed to exceed them.