The Departed is one of those classic really great stories. It starts with the introduction of two compelling characters, played by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, two characters from the same place but made up of different stuff. One heads towards the good side of the law and one towards the bad. As we watch their lives travel parallel paths, we know eventually they are going to cross, but how and when, this is the question. Until then, we are absorbed into the world of South Boston, with its charming two-bit hustlers and low-rent drug trade. But there’s more beneath the surface, and it all seems to revolve around mob boss Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson, and the Boston police are determined to bring him down. With a plan to infiltrate Costello’s gang, the police plant an undercover cop, played by DiCaprio, into the den of thieves, yet they are unaware of a crooked cop, played by Damon, in their own ranks, who is on Costello’s payroll. What begins as a character study quickly becomes a rapid-fire, fast-paced game of cat-and-mouse, mole-hunting-mole thriller as the rat tries to sniff out the informant and the cops try to nail the bad guys before their own guy gets snuffed out.
Exciting stuff, huh? What’s nearly impossible to believe is who directed a crazy, twisty, turny, charming, often thrilling film like this. Martin Scorsese. Yes, the same guy who’s lightest fare was The King of Comedy in 1983, which was pretty dark. Not that this is a light film, by any stretch of the imagination. But The Departed is riddled with humor and a sense of self-awareness and humility that Scorsese is certainly NOT known for. Add to that some B-movie clichés (the over-the-top bombastic cops, the overly sympathetic therapist, the final shot) and it’s clear that Scorsese is trying to break out of his box a bit here. Maybe this is why this is his year, finally, to win the Oscar for Best Director, after 5 previous nominations.
But besides the directing and the screenplay, what makes this story stand out are the performances, particularly DiCaprio and Damon. This is the best work that either of them have done in their careers, hands down. The fact that neither of them are nominated for Oscars is truly shameful, but that notwithstanding, their performances are memorable and make this film the leading contender to win the Academy Award for Best Picture come February 25.
DiCaprio is absolutely magnificent as the tortured good cop who goes undercover to try to bring down the mob. As an actor, DiCaprio has always had a certain subtlety that never overpowered his characters—he does such a good job of truly inhabiting and allowing the character to come out naturally. Here, he lets his character’s vulnerabilities shine through but you never believe for a second that he isn’t the toughest guy in the room. There really isn’t anything this guy can’t do.
Damon, for his part, had the toughest job in this film. It’s easy to play tortured, but it’s hard to play just a total sleazebag. In a two-pronged character study, you can’t have the audience all on the side of one character from the beginning, so Damon’s challenge was to be likeable while at the same time totally unredeemable. How do you get an audience to like the devil? Damon figures out a way. His performance is so charged, you could run a battery off him. His parallel performance to DiCaprio’s reminded me a lot of the dual brilliance of Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential. Sometimes a great film requires a pair of great performances to make it work and The Departed truly breathes from the work of DiCaprio and Damon.
What doesn’t work in this film is—dare I say it—Jack Nicholson. Normally a slam-dunk, he actually takes something away here by playing, well, Jack Nicholson. A director with the respect of Scorsese should have been able to rein him in, but instead it was Jack being Jack and it only served to be a detriment to the film.
But for that to be the only quibble says a lot for this complex, fully loaded film that truly has a little bit of everything jam-packed in it. Scorsese certainly is one to make the genre films: the gangster movie, the period romance, the biopic. This film breaks the mold—it’s a little of everything. You’ve got the gangsters, you’ve got the cops, you’ve got the thriller, you’ve got the humor, you’ve got the romance and you’ve got the character study. And the pacing….well, let’s just say this film could be a ride at Disneyland before the month is through.
Add on the rock n roll soundtrack, and you’ve got the best time in the theatre all year. And if you’re wondering if the Scorsese violence and bloodshed is here too, there’s one place he doesn’t disappoint his fans. It may take a while, but Scorsese’s trademark violence does show up in this film, so if you’re squeamish, be warned.
But also be on notice: The Departed is worth every second.