Martin Scorsese has been one of the most reliably great directors of the past three decades, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down or losing his touch. In the ’00s, he spent a great deal of time documenting his favorite music and musicians — Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and a series on the blues — which meant that he directed only three feature films, half as many as he directed in the ’90s. But all three films were excellent. Two of them (“Aviator” and “Gangs of New York,”) saw Scorsese going away, at least slightly, from his traditional strengths, but with the third, “The Departed,” we find Scorsese right in his wheelhouse. And he hasn’t lost a step.
Set in Boston “some years ago,” this is a film about two liars, and the devil & angel in the middle. That would be Jack Nicholson, playing Frank Costello, and hamming it up as a psychotic mob boss in southie. I haven’t seen Nicholson have this much fun since “Batman,” and really, the two parts aren’t all that similar. Costello seems as crazy as a mad hatter, but crazy like a fox at the same time. Matt Damon is Costello’s mole; he’s Boston PD but on Costello’s payroll, letting him know any time the cops are on to him, or even close. But Costello has a mole of his own, that’s Leonardo DiCaprio, who is deep undercover and working as one of Costello’s soldiers.
When you’re a director the caliber of Martin Scorsese, you can more or less hand-pick your actors, and the supporting cast here ought to win some kind of assembly award. Martin Sheen doesn’t make many movies any more, but he answered the call to play the chief of police and DiCaprio’s handler. Mark Wahlberg delivers a standout performance has Sheen’s right hand man; he is angry and foul-mouthed and incredibly smart. He steals scenes left and right. Vera Farmiga– a name I’d never heard before this film, but have heard plenty after it – is the staff psychiatrist DiCaprio must visit; she’s also Damon’s girlfriend.
“The Departed” is an entertaining gangster/crime thriller, with plenty of tense moments, payoffs, and surprises. But, as with all Scorsese films, what sets it apart from simple genre exercises is the morality that undergirds the story. (Whenever you watch a Scorsese film, you must never forget that he went to seminary and seriously considered becoming a priest before trying his hand at movies.) Simply put, Scorsese takes the biblical command “Thou shalt not lie” and explores it in depth — different lies, different motivations for deception, different consequences after the deception.
Our two central characters (Damon and DiCaprio) are, in many ways, in similar situations, though on opposite sides of the law. (But as Nicholson says in the first five minutes of the movie, there are cops and there are criminals. But when you’re facing a loaded revolver, what’s the difference?) But while there situations are similar, they are very different people. Damon is a born liar. He is charming and (of course) good-looking and loves to mess with people. He gets a kick out of it, and loves to see just how far he can take the deception. It’s fun for him, a sort of high stakes game of risk. DiCaprio, on the other hand, hates it. He’s angry and intense and lives under the constant stress of his lies, and feels like a traitor, even though he’s constantly reassured by Sheen that he’s doing a good thing.
If Nicholson’s the devil in the middle, then Farmiga’s the angel in the same place. One beef I have with Scorsese is that his movies rarely feature well-developed female characters, and Farmiga’s is no exception. She mostly functions as a sort of symbolic sounding board, through whom we learn about our two main characters. Their sexual life is symbolic for their secret life. Farmiga is charmed by Damon, and ends up moving in with him, only to discover that he is sexually impotent. DiCaprio is one of her clients, and while she argues with him, she is irresistibly drawn to him, and eventually has sex with him, cheating on Damon. He is so powerfully potent she can’t resist him. Damon presents a flashy exterior but is empty inside; DiCaprio is a mess on the surface but powerful underneath it all.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he gets to live. This is a cardinal rule in Scorsese films: live by the sword, die by the sword. Characters who kill get killed, almost always. A lot of people end up dead by the end of “The Departed;” this is a crime thriller, after all. But along the way, it’s a mesmerizing journey, a tension-packed ride, and it holds up over and over again because, whether we’ll admit it or not, we want our movies to act as fables, to teach us about life and how to live it. The genius of Martin Scorsese is in a lot of things, but perhaps most importantly in his ability to tell a story with a moral, while still making sure the story itself is worth telling. It’s that ability that makes him one of the best directors of the last thirty years, and that makes “The Departed” one of the best movies of the decade.