Getting right into it from the opening frames, Scorsese introduces us to swaggering local mob leader Frank Costello (an electric Jack Nicholson, making his Scorsese debut) who has graduated through the ranks of South Boston mobsters to rule his fiefdom with an iron grip. He has groomed a bright neighbourhood kid, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) from an early age to join the state police and be his inside man, tipping him off about the investigations against him, in the process allowing him to extend his influence into drugs and high-tech contraband. On the other side of the divide, an unstable rookie cop from the area, Billy Costigan (forcefully played by Leonardo DiCaprio) accepts an assignment from his superiors to go deep undercover and infiltrate Costello’s mob, which means he must change identity, serve time in prison and on release, gradually gain the respect of the psychopathic Frank. Both men enter their new double lives unaware of one another, and are both charged with discovering the others identity – flushing out the rat.
Both have the backup of their respective administrations; Damon’s police are led by Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) and his undercover experts, Queenan and Dignam (Martin Sheen and a never-better Mark Wahlberg), while Di Caprio has to contend with Costello’s dangerous second-in-command, Mr. French (Ray Winstone) and two henchmen, Fitzy and Delahunt (David O’Hara and Mark Rolston). It’s a brilliant set-up for the tense, twisting, violent drama that follows; rich with the language and psychology of the streets and fused for detonation as each man becomes consumed by his double life, each trying to smoke the outer out and suffering the consequences of living under a death sentence. The two moles lives also intersect at the point of police psychologist Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), who starts a relationship with Colin at the same time as she starts to counsel Billy, who comes to see her as part of his parole.
Of the three leads he has played for Scorsese, this is by some distance DiCaprio’s best, matched step for step by Damon. Both give astonishing performances, mature and grounded, playing men disintegrating under the strain of double lives and constantly on the verge of being found out. The film belongs, however, to Nicholson, who is just astonishing, delivering a performance of rare menace and constant threat, leavened with a dark streak of bilious humour and some killer one-liners. Still crazy after all these years, Nicholson here is the personification of evil, insane and bloodthirsty. The other noteworthy supporting performance is from Alec Baldwin, playing the cocksure, unstable police captain with an irrepressible abandon.
The brilliant script, from Boston native William Monahan takes the central notions from Infernal Affairs and spins them out into a beautifully positioned meditation on identity and guilt, like so many of Scorsese’s films, where sin and suffering are endured in the hopes of eventual redemption. These characters, the situation they find themselves in and their relentlessly cynical attitudes make The Departed Scorsese’s most uncompromisingly bleak film, darker and less forgiving even than Taxi Driver, where the abject nihilism was at least tempered by a hint of redemption. Here we descend into a startling closing reel, another sustained Scorsese bloodbath of violence and retribution, played ultra-realistically for maximum effect. Michael Ballhaus’ fluid camera, filled with dramatic noir shadows, gives the film a tremendous texture, matched by the peerless control of editor Thelma Schoonmaker and a rousing Scorsese soundtrack of ocassionally celtic-derived rock and roll. And the Rolling Stones, naturally.
Far from being just another gangster yarn, The Departed is a rich and rewarding film. Scorsese uses the colour red throughout the film to signify death and danger, particularly in a demonic scene at the opera where Nicholson leers directly into the camera. The letter ‘x’ is also used symbolically, scratched on windows and floors as a tribute to the 1932 movie Scarface. Being Scorsese, the film is packed with other references to classic cinema. A scene with Damon and a mobile phone set on vibrate matches Hitchcock for drawn-out suspense. A chase through a Chinese neighbourhood recalls The Lady From Shanghai, with another nod from The Third Man that has Madolyn ignore Colin at a funeral, walking past him with a devastatingly eloquent thousand yard stare.
Following in the wake of indifferent, similarly expensive and high-profile, offerings from his fellow noir-influenced directors Brian De Palma and Michael Mann, Scorsese shows his true class in The Departed; a gripping crime story, brilliantly realised and boasting career-best performances from the three top-lining actors. Emerging from the screening, the first thing I wanted to do was go back in and see it again. The director says this will be his last gangster picture. Let’s hope he changes his mind.
Departed to the judgment,
A mighty afternoon;
Great clouds like ushers leaning,
Creation looking on.
The flesh surrendered, cancelled
The bodiless begun;
Two worlds, like audiences, disperse
And leave the soul alone.
Emily Dickinson [wiki]