Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Departed, sets a pace for itself at the beginning and never derails. It hums along like an expert jazz number, hitting all the right notes along the way. Helping Scorsese along is an insanely talented cast – all of whom seem to get exactly what the screenwriter, the genre and the director are all about. This is a job for pros.
The Departed is a remake of the beloved Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs. But Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan make it very much their own, setting it on the mean streets of Boston. It’s still the same story of the line that divides the criminals from the cops. This film has its roots in films like Dirty Harry more so than, say, Goodfellas. Although in Scorsese’s films it’s always difficult to tell the good people from the bad people – lines are blurred all over the place – there is at the center someone who is determined to find the right path, no matter how hard it is to get to it or to stay on it.
In this film, that person is DiCaprio as Billy Costigan, a decent man who wants to work for law enforcement. After being told by Queenan (a delightfully nasty Mark Wahlberg) that he’s nowhere near up to the job, Billy is forced underground, made to be an informant. He even has to do time in prison to make himself more legitimate. Why all of this trouble? They need to keep tabs on Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson, stealing the show), a cold, mean, ruthless killer with a crazy streak. Billy is to get close enough to be trusted and then give the cops information.
The converse story in the film is that a bad cop, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), has been entwined with Frank Costello from day one. He’s a cop in order to give Costello information. Colin and Billy are two sides of one coin – good and evil, used and useful. The film turns positively Hitchockian when the two men are forced to hunt each other down. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, how these two lives wrap around each other, and how Scorsese keeps all of the balls in the air, dazzling his audience into breathless anticipation for what’s going to happen next.
Top to bottom, the acting is in fine form. The supporting players – Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone – act the hell out of the small amount of screen time. Jack Nicholson brings back the grit and ruthlessness of his earlier work in films like Carnal Knowledge – back when it was still okay for him to be bad. His Costello is off the wall – the weirdest and wildest mob criminal to hit the big screen since…well, maybe ever. Nicholson delights in pulling out the stops, delivering one great line after the next, but never quite being so predictable that his part loses its mystery; Costello has some dark skeletons in his closet, to be sure.
Matt Damon should never play good guys. His darker work is what he’s made for. The Talented Mr. Ripley exhibits a complexity rarely seen in his other work. His rat cop here touches on some of the same nuances. Damon has some of the film’s most powerful moments, especially when he sits in utter silence. He’s playing a dangerous game of deception and luck is on his side. At one moment he must defend himself from an accusation, and his explosive temper in that moment reveals how tightly Sullivan has been keeping the lid on.
But the film belongs, really, to DiCaprio. His third film with Scorsese to date (after Gangs of New York and The Aviator), he knows the director well enough and trusts his abilities to give himself over completely to the role. His part requires that he always be one part good guy, one part bad guy, one part guy who looks out for himself. The strain of the job, the fear that mounts up inside him, recalls none other than Jimmy Stewart who provided much the same kind of dynamic for Hitchcock in films like Vertigo. DiCaprio will never be De Niro but Stewart was never Cary Grant either; they are equally brilliant, but decidedly different, heroes.
Scorsese’s Departed is the kind of film that begs you back into the theater almost immediately upon exiting, just to do it all over again. The violence and profanity is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but the fury behind this director’s talent, the perfection of the ensemble cast and the crisp dialogue of its velvety smooth screenplay ought to be enough to more than satisfy everyone else. The Departed is sure to end up as one of the best of 2006.