Although his works deal with an impressive variety of subjects, characters, and settings, including high-society in 19th century Manhattan and the theocracy of 20th century Tibet, Martin Scorsese always seems most at home in the darker corners of contemporary urban America. His signature appears most legibly on films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and GoodFellas, all powerful inquiries into the nature and meaning of violence. After his inflated excursions into American history and celebrity biography in Gangs of New York and The Aviator, he returns to some characteristic locations and familiar people in his new movie about cops and crooks, The Departed.
This time around the director splits his focus between two groups, not only his usual criminals but also the official representative of law enforcement, ultimately finding little difference between the two. Although inspired by the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, the movie uses some material roughly based on some actual events of a few years ago in the Boston underworld, involving the Irish mafia, the local police, and the FBI in a complicated web of deception, conspiracy, and betrayal.
Employing a number of sequences of rapid montage, frequent changes of chronology, flashbacks within flashbacks, and a kind of visual dialectic based on crosscutting, The Departed suggests in its method the moral complexity of its subjects. Its two major characters, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), both products of the tough Irish neighborhoods of South Boston, follow parallel tracks that occasionally intersect with a brutal violence. A detective sergeant in the Massachusetts State Police, Sullivan commands a special unit investigating the boss of the Irish mafia, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), while Costigan works in Costello's crew of thieves, thugs, and killers.
The reality of duplicity connects the two men --- Sullivan is actually a spy and a traitor, Costello's mole inside the police, and Costigan is a state trooper, working undercover inside the mob. As Costello's criminal activities grow ever bolder and bloodier, and the investigation increases in scope and intensity, each operative, suspecting the existence of the other, attempts to discover his opposite number before he is exposed. Much of the movie's suspense and excitement build on the mounting tension of the two men's efforts to identify each other, while also avoiding both friends and enemies, in a series of pursuits and narrow escapes that culminates in some shocking violence, and ultimately a scene strewn with corpses like the last act of a Shakespearean tragedy.
The complicated plots and the numerous parallel actions occasionally intersect in moments when the two men encounter the same policemen and the same criminals and in their separate relationships with a rather unlikely police psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga). Each begins consulting the shrinker but ends becoming her lover, an ironic competition that, however fanciful, serves to underline the picture's relentlessly dialectical structure.
Once begun, the deception and betrayal never end, as events reveal the presence of other spies and traitors, including Costello himself, who like his real-life counterpart informed for the FBI even while committing a number of horrible crimes. Although Scorsese obviously knows the original mafia, here he exhibits a convincing awareness of the habits and customs of Irish criminals, even more vicious and treacherous than the Italian gangsters, and who were in fact rewarded by the FBI for killing off the Italian mob in Boston.
The casting accounts for the picture's major problems, which tend to weaken an otherwise complex and fascinating narrative. The director continues his perplexing enchantment with Leonardo DiCaprio, who retains the frown he acquired in the dismal Aviator and deploys it at every opportunity with much the same unsatisfactory result; neither he nor Matt Damon resembles anybody's idea of a tough cop/gangster/informant. All the other actors, however, perform quite well, especially Nicholson as a psychopathic, quasi-intellectual mobster who quotes Shakespeare and kills without a qualm. In the fine supporting cast, Mark Wahlberg, of all people, acquits himself well as a terrifically hostile and profane sergeant who appears to hate everyone with a nicely democratic sense of equality; he also in effect earns the last word of the film, behaving with a kind of fierce integrity that counters all the falsehood and all the treachery.
The Departed (R), directed by Martin Scorsese, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.