All things considered, Martin Scorsese hasn’t made a decent feature film in over a decade. Gangs of New York seemed excessively brutal and utterly pointless, Bringing out the Dead sank like a stone and The Aviator, for all the accolades draped over it, hardly served its biographical purposes adequately and was a remarkably boring film.
The Departed seemed as if it might also suffer the same pitfalls as Scorsese’s other recent work: an all-star cast put to bad use, characters too jaggedly sketched-out and unrealistic for the audience to relate, perhaps even a script that could not maintain itself over a span of two hours or more. Thankfully, this will not be Scorsese’s last gasp as a once-revered, now tired and ragged filmmaker, but a glorious comeback that all directors should be so lucky to experience.
Scorsese did well to stick with a simple, tried-and-true premise this time around. Echoing an infamous phrase from the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jack Nicholson’s seedy, virulent crime boss Frank Costello explains to a young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) early in the film, “When I was your age, they would say you could become cops or criminals. What I’m saying is this: When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”
That single sentence sets the stage for a dramatic, morbidly engrossing film that explores the very fine line (if any) between cop and crook, and more broadly, what it means to be faithful to a group, an ideology or another human being. Costello’s mob manages to infiltrate the grown-up, wily Sullivan into the State Troopers’ Organized Crime division, basically insuring several more decades of unchecked, elusive drug trafficking and murder for the south Boston Irish mafia. The hook, however, is that Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignan (Mark Wahlberg) manage to plant a mole of their own within Costello’s gang, fresh-faced Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a bright young academy graduate who broke free of a high-profile criminal family. The rest is betrayal upon deception upon double-cross, as characters’ motives are perpetually unclear and the games don’t stop until everyone is in a body bag.
There are no flubs with casting this time around. Leonardo DiCaprio simply oozes intensity in what is inarguably his most effortlessly commanding performance since his adolescent role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? His ability to endear himself to the audience while simultaneously conveying profound psychological suffering and latent brutality as a result of years of misdeeds while a member of Costello’s gang is mesmerizing and will doubtlessly stand among the strongest turns of 2006. Scorsese wisely enlists the talents of Vera Farmiga whose performance opposite Adrian Brody in 2004’s Dummy was among the more gorgeously nuanced in recent memory to portray Madolyn, police psychiatrist and Sullivan’s girlfriend who later finds herself drawn to Costigan while attempting to treat his anxiety. Alec Baldwin flexes his comedic muscles as the eccentric, Y-chromosome-driven chief of the Organized Crime division with prime results, and Wahlberg, Damon, Sheen and the gruff Ray Winstone all give believable, noteworthy performances.
Nicholson’s demented Costello is the real icing on the cake here. He stands out as a man who is both staggeringly barbaric-physically as well as psychologically-and, at times, among the most vulnerable characters in the film. His ability to play his trademark, oddball comedy and subtly frighten an audience within the same onscreen exchange is beyond deft; it should be recognized as legendary.
The Departed is the must-see of the season. If you can stomach the twists, turns and violence, you cannot possibly be disappointed.