Martin Scorcese's latest film, The Departed, is a violent, profanity-ridden morality play. Known from the beginning of his career for his fascination with urban gangs"”as well as for his excellence as a director"”Scorcese moves an all-star cast expertly through screenwriter William Monahan's dense, knowing script. By the end, when almost nobody is left standing or unbruised, we can't distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, the truth-tellers from the liars. If this sounds deeply cynical, it is. Yet, through it all, Scorcese clearly demonstrates the cost of immorality, leaving us with a bad taste in our mouths but also a certainty of how people must not behave.
It takes a while just to sort out who's who or what in the byzantine plot opening, despite its symmetry. Two young men from Boston begin their careers in the Massachusetts State Police at roughly the same time. One, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), is a "good"¯ boy, an altar boy and overachiever, whose father had some connections with the Irish mob--in particular, his (self-anointed) "godfather,"¯ Frank Costello, played with characteristic panache by Jack Nicholson. Colin becomes a "mole"¯ inside the police, tipping off Costello about busts and, ultimately, trying to learn the identity of his counterpart, a spy inside Costello's gang.
Unlike Colin, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) never makes it out of the police academy. Rather, he is recruited by Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his angry associate, Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), to go undercover. Working his way, slowly and often painfully, into Costello's confidence, Billy becomes aware of his boss's own spy, though, again, not his identity. The cat and mouse game between these two"”played largely via cell phone"” culminates at the movie's climax, the first time they meet, after several near misses.
Perhaps too coincidentally, all that they do share is the bed of the police psychiatrist, Madelyn Madden (Vera Farmiga). Though ostensibly into finding the truth, she has her own deception to live out and, finally, live with, surviving to pick up the burden of knowing too much. Farmiga and DiCaprio's scenes are played with unrelenting intensity, balanced against the sometimes playful relationship between her and Damon's Sullivan.
These three young actors carry the plot, but Nicholson carries the movie. When his Costello leaves the screen and, eventually, the plot, a good deal of the energy goes with him. Scorcese saves his best camerawork and framing for the redoubtable veteran, who gives one of his most commanding performances as a hateful, almost diabolic butcher. His almost total amorality becomes a foil for the young cops, both of whom are plagued with doubt about their lives' directions and the choices they must live with.
The film's ending is played as a deliberate anti-climax, a foregone conclusion, though it still comes as a shock, as does much of the film's sudden and graphic violence. Scorcese inserts moments of dark humor to offset the film's heavy feel, though I hesitate to call them comic relief. The film, as always with this marvelous director, is a pleasure to watch: cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and film editor Thelma Schoonmacher, both longtime associates of Scorcese, help put his characteristic stamps on this latest effort. And Howard Shore's original score illustrates, again, the virtues of understatement, underscoring the action rather than overwhelming it.
The title of The Departed ostensibly refers to a very minor figure whom we never see. More broadly, though, it covers all of the people whose lives are sacrificed by greed, deception, and sheer, just-for-the-hell-of-it brutality. Its curiously moral position, in the startlingly immoral world it depicts, is hard to see. But it's there.