When it comes to “The Departed,” the hype surrounding Scorsese’s return to the organized crime drama is well-founded – with this film, he takes on a project that seems so familiar, and yet he is able to mold it into a tough morality tale that goes much deeper than some of his best crime movies. The plot starts off simply enough, as Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) both graduates from the state police academy in Boston. The former becomes an undercover cop with a hidden identity, while the latter leaps up the ranks of the organized crime unit as an inside man for notorious mob boss, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). After a botched stakeout during Costello’s sale of stolen microchips, it becomes clear that there are moles in both organizations. The rest of the film is a spiraling chase filled with backstabbing and suspicion, as both the cops and robbers race to expose their group’s respective rat and eliminate him.
The boiling, angry energy of Scorsese’s earlier films is transplanted seamlessly to the mean streets of Beantown. His style and pacing move like a visual machine gun – sudden, jarring action happens like a vicious punch or a burst of gunfire, and the action shots are cut so that they are never quite completed, which makes them even more startling. Gory violence abounds, as expected from the great director. This film may have set a record for how many times a man is dispatched with a splattering headshot – a Scorsese trademark.
Aside from the gore factor, this film is actually Oscar-worthy, and the strengths that propel this film into the Oscar realm are undoubtedly its squadron of A-list actors and their gritty performances – despite some snarky Boston accents. Nicholson displays his virtuoso humor and anger as the sociopath Costello, although his character seems less interesting because of his obvious and one-dimensional amorality. He is Scorsese’s Satan, lurking in the shadows and manipulating both Costigan’s and Sullivan’s senses of respect and loyalty.
DiCaprio and Damon are the heart of this movie. They play men that are intelligent, if initially arrogant, and both men turn in great performances as their characters fight to escape their mutual past. Ultimately, beneath their violent and confident exteriors, they are just boys lying to others and themselves for protection against their own insecurities, and DiCaprio and Damon capture this blend of grit and vulnerability perfectly.
In one of the film’s best scenes, Damon calls DiCaprio directly, although neither of the men is aware that he is speaking to his former peer. The whole scene is amazing and tense as the audience realizes that despite their double-dealings and lies, both characters are essentially facing the same dilemma. Each man, lawful or not, has to pick up the proverbial phone and answer for his actions and ultimately, it is this chemistry that makes the film affecting, tragic and an example of some of Scorsese’s best work to date.