The Departed has all the earmarks of a standard undercover cop film. William Monahan's flawless script manages to juggle half a dozen major characters and another half-dozen important minor ones. We get the backstory for each of these characters, and we understand what draws them together so that their interactions feel motivated by behavior and psychology rather than just plot mechanics. With remarkable clarity, Monahan depicts the chain of command for competing police units as well as for the crime ring they are investigating. Based on the finished film, it would be hard to imagine that any decent filmmaker wound not be able to make a good film out of this solid material. The gifted Martin Scorsese turns it into arguably the greatest undercover cop film ever made. Most of the great Scorsese movies are, at their core, genre films. GoodFellas and Mean Streets are both gangster films, the former structured almost exactly like the classic Warner Bros. crime films of the '30s like Scarface and The Public Enemy. Raging Bull is, plot point for plot point, a boxing melodrama from the '40s and '50s. Scorsese elevates these films above the realm of simple genre exercises by infusing them with a unique synthesis of influences, and with an unrivaled ability to mix formal compositions with naturalistic acting.
Scorsese saves his "Directed By" credit for the end of the film, but from the opening shot onward there is never a doubt about the identity of the man behind the camera. A great director is sometimes referred to as an image-maker, and this film offers numerous examples of his visual skills. Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus masterfully play light and dark against each other, obscuring and revealing actors' faces in ways that express the shifting power struggles between them. Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker throw heaps of plot at the audience with such command and authority that he is never forced to let the story lag in order for the audience to catch up. Scenes are interwoven in such a way that they come alive for the viewer in unexpected and rewarding ways. There are also a handful of allusions to other great films like M and Psycho -- the best of these is an emotionally powerful shot that directly references The Third Man. The shot works perfectly even if a viewer has never seen the Carol Reed classic, but if they have, it infuses the scene with added poignancy.
In Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino explained why undercover cop stories always make good movies: a good undercover cop has to be the most naturalistic actor in the room. The Departed offers two such characters to set this dynamic into motion; Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, a corrupt detective on crime boss Frank Costello's payroll, and Leonardo DiCaprio portrays William Costigan, a cop with the personal history to help him pass as a typical Southie tough guy. Damon's boy-next-door charm shines through during his early scenes with love interest Vera Farmiga, a police psychiatrist. They are both so at ease in front of the camera that they often make the audience feel as if they are eavesdropping. Damon achieves this same naturalism during his more forceful scenes, most memorably when playing against Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg's no-BS staff sergeant has only a few scenes, but they are memorable both for their quotable dialogue and Wahlberg's commanding performance. Martin Sheen plays wisdom and weariness in equal measure as Wahlberg's boss, subtly reminding everybody that although he never achieved the fame of Pacino, De Niro, or Hoffman, he is certainly among his generation's most compelling screen performers. Alec Baldwin does a hilarious riff on his Glengarry Glen Ross character, mixing it with the quirky, funny bosses he's played in films like Fun With Dick and Jane and Along Came Polly.
Leonardo DiCaprio deserves much praise for his excellent work in the film. He broods, and goes for the big emotions when it is appropriate, but for the most part serves as the quiet center of this film. He delivers a monologue in the middle of the movie where he explains that no matter what tension surrounds him, no matter how fast his heart beats, his hands remains still. That remains true throughout the picture, but DiCaprio compensates for this control by letting his eyes do much of the work. During moments of openness, his bearing and his posture don't change, but his eyes convey just enough vulnerability for the audience to register his inner experiences, both with regard to the specific scene and to the double-life that is slowly eating him alive.
If DiCaprio is the solid center of the film, and Damon is the most naturalistic, then Jack Nicholson gets to be the life of the party. As outrageous as Costello's behavior often is, and as remarkable as some of the pearls of wisdom that come from his mouth are, he never once makes this unhinged criminal too big to be real. Unlike the mad-dog performances in films such as Batman, The Shining, or The Witches of Eastwick, every element of The Departed helps keep Jack Nicholson frighteningly and realistically monstrous.
From the rigid chain of command that exists in both the cop and the criminal worlds to the ways the various characters play out their power dynamics, the movie returns to the subject of authority time and again. Even the images and the music act as governances of power, demanding attention so deftly that the audience gives it over without question. There is an author responsible for all that authority. His name is Martin Scorsese, and The Departed stands alongside his other masterpieces -- GoodFellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets -- as a testament to his prodigious talent.