"I don't want to be a product of the environment. I want my environment to be a product of me."
-Jack Nicholson as mob boss Frank Costello in "The Departed."
Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" is an instant gangster classic, a gritty, intense and electrifying work from a master who knows this turf better than any director who ever lived.
The moment it was over, I wanted to see it again.
In Jack Nicholson's opening monologue as longtime crime boss Frank Costello, he spews a nasty racial slur as casually as you'd say "hello." You're not going to like this man. He doesn't want you to like him. Even before he emerges from the shadows of the narrative and reveals his hardened face, Nicholson is serving notice that he's going to keep the familiar tricks -the lovable bad boy grins and the arched eyebrows -in the drawer in favor of serving up an authentic, searing performance. It's some of the best work he's ever done -and it's one of a half-dozen nomination-worthy performances in the best movie so far this year.
With "The Departed," Martin Scorsese returns to the gutter-level gangster genre he practically re-invented with "Mean Streets" (1973) and then perfected with "Goodfellas" (1990) -but this time, his camera is prowling the streets and alleys and abandoned buildings and taverns of Boston, and most of the criminals and the police are Irish to the core. We actually spend more time with the cops than the crooks -not that you can always tell one from the other, even with a scorecard.
"The Departed" is based on the Hong Kong classic "Infernal Affairs" (2002), but there are major revisions in the story and a shift in focus on some of the characters, most notably Nicholson's mob boss, a rather minor force in the original who becomes the central figure in the epic American version.
Nicholson's Frank Costello is a 70-year-old career criminal who rules his turf with all the subtlety of a lion in the wild. With his unkempt hair flying every which way and his mad eyes darting about, Costello grabs what he wants with both hands and stomps his enemies with bloody glee. Whether he's singing an Irish tune with an exaggerated, self-mocking accent, harassing a pedophile priest in a restaurant, sitting in an opera box with two dates whose combined ages don't match his, or meeting with an informant in a porn theater, Costello is the dominating force in the room, lapping up every moment while there's still time.
When Frank asks one tavern patron about his mother's health, the man says, "She's on her way out."
"We all are," says Frank, as he begins to make his exit. "Act accordingly."
It's a giant and sometimes funny performance, but Nicholson isn't clowning around or vying for our affections a la his villainous work in "Batman" or "The Witches of Eastwick." He's a man and he's a monster, albeit a very entertaining one.
Scorsese has cinematically adopted Leonardo DiCaprio, who follows his fine work in "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator" with the best performance of his career as Billy Costigan, a smart hothead who tries to escape his criminal family ties by joining the Massachusetts State Police Department's Special Investigations Unit, which is obsessed with bringing down Costello and his crew.
Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, an equally promising recruit who fast-tracks his way through the department -but even as Sullivan gets assigned to the elite unit tracking Costello, he's working his second cell phone every step of the way, letting the mobster know exactly where the investigation stands. Sullivan isn't a good cop gone crooked --he's a plant who was handpicked as a teenager by Costello to join the force as the ultimate mole. This guy is an informant a dozen years in the making.
In the meantime, Costigan washes out of the force, gets convicted of a crime, does some jail time and winds up hanging around with his idiot drug dealer of a cousin -but that's all by design as well. Only two men on the force -a Notre Dame-loving captain (Martin Sheen) and his foul-mouthed second-in-command (Mark Wahlberg) -know that Costigan in fact has never left the force and has been tabbed to infiltrate Costello's crew.
Never have cell phones played such an integral part in a crime thriller, with Costigan and Sullivan text-messaging and calling their respective bosses with key bits of information, even as both units try to flush out the rat in their midst. (There is a moment late in the film when they have their own cell phone "meeting," and nothing is said, and yet everything is said. The tension is almost unbearable.) But when you spend a year pretending to be a gangster, or for that matter a hard-charging cop, how much of it begins to rub off? Damon and DiCaprio are so skilled at portraying moral ambiguity, and Scorsese is so adept at keeping these stories racing along until their inevitable collision, that there were times when it was difficult to remember who was the good guy and who was the real crook. It's a house of mirrors, but one never feels manipulated.
Complicating matters is Vera Farmiga's Madolyn, a psychiatrist who seems like she needs her own time with a therapist. She's dating Sullivan (whom she believes to be a good cop) and counseling Costigan, to whom she is also attracted. Each man feels as if he's closest to being himself when he's talking to Madolyn, but neither is telling her the truth. Everybody in "The Departed" is a professional liar, with the possible exception of Sheen's Captain Queenan and Alec Baldwin's Captain Ellerby, a hilariously intense veteran whose gut bulges against his sweat-stained dress shirt as he rails about his hatred for Costello.
Scorsese is an original artist, but "The Departed" contains all sorts of touches and echoes of other films, from "True Romance" to "The Third Man." A number of signature Scorsese moves come into play as well, from the sublime use of 1970s rock-soundtrack staples such as "Gimme Shelter" and "Comfortably Numb" to the pervasive Roman Catholic imagery in scene after scene, to the shocking jolts of violence that somehow feel more real than the gunplay and bloodshed in just about any other gangster movie.
"The Departed" is about men who live in a world of casual violence, whose workdays routinely include battering skulls or attending funerals. It is funny, shocking and brutal, and it's filled with brilliant performances, with some of our best actors sinking their teeth into a great screenplay from William Monahan. Scorsese reinforces his reputation as one of the greatest living directors. He may get his sixth Oscar nomination and he might even win, but does it matter? Along with "Goodfellas," this is one of the best gangster movies in film history, whether or not there's ever a gold trophy attached to it.