It has been a long time coming, but Leonardo DiCaprio is finally all grown up—cinematically speaking, that is.
However great his acting abilities, with the exception of 2002’s Catch Me if You Can, his last few major outings—two of which were also Scorsese projects—seemed like little more than a precocious boy pretending to be a grown man. For all the costume changes, theatrical makeup, and facial hair, did anyone really believe his Amsterdam Vallon was any match for Daniel Day Lewis’ Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York? And as a leading man for Cate Blanchett in The Aviator he looked more like a teenager escorting his older sister to a 1930’s theme party than Howard Hughes romancing one of Hollywood’s legendary blondes.
The Departed is different. Set in Boston in the here and now it makes more appropriate use of DiCaprio’s cherubic looks yet also offers him far greater emotional depth to grapple with than perhaps any material he has tackled so far. As Billy Costigan, a undercover officer assigned to infiltrate a mob kingpin’s inner circle, DiCaprio is required to play brash, vulnerable, crafty, and terrified all at the same time, and he more than rises to the task. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an air-tight thriller of a script or performers like Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Alec Baldwin to play off of either.
Based on the phenomenally-successful Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs, The Departed pits two moles—one for the mob and one for the cops—in a race for their lives to unmask each other. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has been groomed from childhood to be a perfect (“too perfect,” one character observes) candidate for Massachusetts State Trooper so that he can spy for Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Billy on the other hand has a flawed past that keeps him from attaining “Statie” rank, but is convinced by two special division officers (Sheen and Wahlberg) that he’d be the perfect person to infiltrate and take down Costello’s empire. Thanks to the enterprising work of both double agents, the two sides soon become aware that they have a traitor in their midst.
Despite a sprawling story and seemingly throwaway (and frequently hilarious) dialogue, Scorsese never wastes a character and barely wastes a line. Partly due to the fact that he spared no expense casting even the smallest roles, he manages the neat trick of a film that seems leisurely even as it crackles with energy. Whatever his politics, nobody can add life to a one-note role like Alec Baldwin, though Mark Wahlberg demonstrates here that he’s trying to come close.
Screenwriter William Monahan takes equal care maximizing the tension of the setup. Without resorting to unbelievable plot contortions, he has Colin and Billy intersecting and reintersecting with hair’s-breadth closeness until the final discovery. Suspense has rarely been so expertly choreographed as it is in one scene where each informer sits silently on a cell phone with the other, determined not to be the first to reveal his identity.
But it isn’t its smartly-drawn action, its ability to mine unlikely comedy, or even its amazing performances all around that elevate The Departed above many of the best of its genre—it is its subtle sense of morality that does that. Unlike in previous Scorsese films, the rats in these outfits weigh the wages of their treachery. On the surface Colin’s ice-man arrogance suggests he feels no guilt for his life of crime. However, his neediness toward his girlfriend and his obsession with appearing white collar, along with occasional bouts of impotence, suggest differently. The duplicity weighs even heavier on Billy who feels as though his soul is being scratched away by the daily evil he must perpetrate in order to achieve a more important good.
All three leading men (DiCaprio, Damon, and Nicholson) ostensibly reflect increasing internal conflict throughout the film—Damon and DiCaprio the inner pull between good and evil, Nicholson the pull between sanity and insanity—but DiCaprio’s is the conflict we walk away remembering. He makes the most of the best Scorsese vehicle since Goodfellas and the most morally cognizant Scorsese vehicle to date. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if both men are rewarded for their maturing come Oscar season.