Title: The Departed
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriters: William Monahan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
Word on the street had it that The Departed is the best thing Scorsese has done since Goodfellas, and now having seen it, that seems about right. In fact, this is Scorsese at the top of his gritty, unsentimental game, crafting a crime thriller both epic and intimate, conventionally suspenseful and uniquely upsetting. The film makes a convincing case, while you’re watching, that it simply doesn’t get much better than this: its mastery is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
First, Scorsese gets the genre elements precisely right. No stranger to suspense, he pitches most of The Departed roughly at the level of the astonishing helicopter sequence in Goodfellas, alternating quiet dread with bursts of action that have true significance. Seen as an intelligent, intricate thriller, the movie is exquisite.
It helps that the filmmaker has a doozy of a plot to work with — adapted by William Monahan (whose Kingdom of Heaven is another recent highlight, especially the unmolested version Fox released on DVD) from a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs, the story — about an undercover cop infiltrating the inner circle of a fearsome Boston crime lord, while one of the crime lord’s operatives is undercover in the upper echelons of the police — has the hook of a great pop song. Part of the reason The Departed works as well as it does is that Scorsese recognized the intuitive appeal of this concept and let it do some of the heavy lifting: part of the fun is how the two men dance around each other — down to dating the same woman — in ways that seem merely diabolical instead of contrived.
It may seem worrisome that the brunt of the responsibility on the acting front is borne by Leonardo DiCaprio, but unlike in his occasionally tentative Gangs of New York turn, he is positively on fire here. His Billy Costigan is a compelling mess of contradictions, a product of a crime family who rebels by enrolling in the police academy only to be called out as an implausible candidate for the force and sent to jail for the purpose of plausibly infiltrating the ranks of legendary gangster Vince Costello (Jack Nicholson). Somehow, perhaps just with unrelenting fiery-eyed intensity, DiCaprio makes this make sense, and there are scenes late in the film where Costigan’s volatility absolutely leaps off the screen — watch for the scene in the airport and the way DiCaprio spits out “There’s a leak in your unit; it’s real; smoke him out.”
I could go on for pages about the performances in The Departed — DiCaprio is, after all, supported by Matt Damon, who continues to impress, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen, and not to mention Jack Nicholson, who probably hasn’t had this much fun since Batman (and indeed, certain moments seem to recall the legendary villain he played there). But it’s more pertinent to point out how much they have to work with. Scorsese and Monahan draw the characters with sympathy and precision; it’s impossible to quickly pin down what role each will play, but in the end it’s just as impossible to imagine things playing out in any other way. Take Mark Wahlberg’s abrasive Dingam, for example, one of the leads in the undercover division — he begins the film as our collective enemy, utterly reaming out the poor, unassuming Costigan, but we gradually, and without any change in his demeanor or in Wahlberg’s aggressive performance, realize how right he has been all along. It’s great screenwriting, recognizing that our perceptions of people change more often than people themselves.
Scorsese, meanwhile, gets the chance to spin out the misanthropic worldview he arguably unveiled in Gangs of New York. The Departed is, if anything, a paean to unflinching determination, not putting much stock in loyalty, honor or much of anything else. From Costello’s mantra — “No one gives it to you; you have to take it” — to Costigan’s fierce perseverance in the face of rising panic, to — perhaps most importantly — Dingam’s conviction that he is right, damn it, the movie to a certain extent rewards monomania, and the outcome turns out to be solely a function of who is the last man standing.
Working filmmakers canonized as capital-G Great rarely have a chance to relive the glory of unanimous critical acclaim — the bias is usually toward comparing their new work unfavorably to their classics. The Departed will buck that trend. It’s up there with anything the man has ever done, a confirmation of his genius, and one of the best films of the year.