In the Golden Age of Hollywood, studios became known for cornering genres: MGM excelled at musicals, Universal had its grip on horror, and Warner's expertise extended to gangster pictures, the domain of eternal movie tough guys like Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson. In a post-Code, postmodern Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson fill the bill in Warner's latter-day gangster picture The Departed, which— thanks to cineaste Martin Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan—pleasingly complicates the cops-and-robbers movie.
A loose adaptation of Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak's nifty thriller Infernal Affairs, The Departed elaborates on a giddily high-concept premise: a cop infilitrates the mob while a mobster infiltrates the police. In the war between organized crime and top cops, the situation is frighteningly common, but on screen, the situation remains fresh. Scorsese's mastery of milieu—in this case, both sides of the Irish Catholic tracks—complements Monahan's hard-boiled dialogue to create the illusion of verisimilitude.
But unlike Casino or Goodfellas, The Departed doesn't derive from an inside-out account of true crime; rather it's the stylish wild child of a Hong Kong gangster movie. The meeting of grit and gloss suits the moment for Scorsese; back in the neighborhood, swinging bats and busting balls, the director demonstrates renewed confidence and vigor, and if Hollywood stars continue to afford him opportunity, Scorsese continues to pay back Hollywood by suggesting "movie" doesn't have to be a dirty word. Kept in balance, The Departed's verbal and visual gifts, gun-toting menace, down-and-dirty existentialism, and bristling suspense should please both sides of the movie aisle.
Early in The Departed, Irish mob kingpin Frank Costello (Nicholson) explains, "I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me." When we first see Costello, he's a shadow walking, a black hole against a sunny day (literally, in the arresting photography of Scorsese vet Michael Ballhaus). Costello's fearful pull disrupts the all-American scene of a neighborhood soda shop, where on a whim he recruits a boy into a life of criminal enterprise. Corruption too is an American pastime, or as Costello's lieutenant Mr. French (a slow-burning Ray Winstone) puts it, "Francis, it's a nation of fucking rats."
The boy is Colin Sullivan, who grows up to be a Massachusetts state policeman secretly subsidized by Costello. As Sullivan (Damon) positions himself in the Special Investigation Unit to serve his true master with intelligence and interference, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) finds himself plucked from the ranks to become an undercover informer working from within Costello's crew.
Naturally, they're two sides of the same coin. Sullivan lives above his natural station by enjoying a high-class apartment and career approbation he hasn't earned; when Costigan stoops to the role of goverment-issue foot soldier, and the further pretense of street criminal, he does so partly as a rejection rejection of his moneyed family (he rhetorically asks, "Families are always risin' and fallin' in America, am I right?"). Costello observes that good and bad are never more abstract than when you're on the business end of a loaded gun; nevertheless, the audience is able comfortably to side with Costigan and pity his erratic behavior rather than judge it.
Monahan ably works the theme of untrustworthy appearances leading to crises of faith and conscience. For starters, he implies that the issue is intrinsic to Irish Catholics: Joyce is duly quoted, Costello dresses down clergymen for sexual improprieties, and Sullivan paraphrases Freud's observation that the Irish are "the only people who are impervious to psychoanalysis." Costigan demonstrates the stress of living the life of the enemy combatant. Both Costigan and Sullivan must suffer the guilt of betraying those whose trust they've duplicitously courted, whether the "Staties" or Costello or the woman both men romantically pursue, a police psychologist (Vera Farmiga). In the end, the notion of loyalty is so thoroughly poisoned that every man must live (or die) for himself.
Thematic and cosmetic similarities to the Boston-set Mystic River may bode well for The Departed come Oscar time. Scorsese and Ballhaus add some striking images to their muscular canon, including the sight of both protagonists fragmented and reflected in a wind chime, and the Massachusetts State Dome as a looming, deceptive symbol of power (the director also can't resist putting John Ford's The Informer on a TV). Some usual suspects—editor Thelma Schoonmaker and costumer Sandy Powell among them—contribute to the director's distinctive stylistic unity, and the soundtrack is dominated, again, by selective popular music (the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" makes its third Scorsesean appearance, after Goodfellas and Casino).
Though only Nicholson's ripely theatrical performance seems eminently nominate-able, DiCaprio and Damon convincingly inhabit this world of Boston tough guys, suffused with casual sexism, racism, profanity, and rough-and-tumble physicality. The film pulses forward by their sweaty paces, but Scorsese has always relished the potential for humor found in the fringe characters, often blithe to the manic depression of the anti-heroes by their side; here, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg turn in stellar work as police higher-ups (while Martin Sheen plays the only cop who's mentally on an even keel).
Though The Departed remains surprisingly commanding over its substantial running time, the twisty plot occasionally missteps and raises some questions of credibility. How do Costello and Sullivan reconcile the latter's expensive apartment with his attempt to blend in to the police force? Isn't it reckless for the two to meet at Sullivan's graduation, in plain sight of a mass of police? Can an undercover cop commit crimes with impunity? (In reality, such transgressions must be ingeniously avoided.) As Costigan says, "There is no one more full of shit than a cop—except a cop on TV." Or on the big screen, but this gangster-movie throwback, powered by stars, is one of the year's finest, friskiest entertainments.