From the beginning, there's been a war within Martin Scorsese's soul between the altar boy and the street kid. A sickly child himself, Scorsese used to follow the various comings and goings of the local goombahs from the bedroom window of his parents' Little Italy apartment. And no director in the history of movies has done a better job of capturing the rough-and-tumble life of your average entry-level Mafioso, from the roustabouts of Mean Streets to the party animals of GoodFellas. 'The Sopranos'? Fuhgedaboutit. David Chase will never be through paying his debts to Padrone Scorsese. And keep in mind that Tony and the gang, when it comes time to sit back and relax, reach for their Godfather DVDs, not their GoodFellas DVDs. They're as sentimental about the Cosa Nostra as Mario Puzo was.
Not Scorsese. But the street kid does give way to the altar boy, and not just in movies like The Last Temptation of Christ, where Scorsese, in his own way, tried to do the lord's bidding (and was nearly crucified for it). There's also the Oscar-bait side of Scorsese's artistic temperament, a tendency, especially in recent years, to court official approval with movies like The Age of Innocence, Kundun and The Aviator. Howard Hughes was one of the most morally complex men of the 20th century, and that's really saying something. But in Scorsese's splendidly mounted production, he was a heroic entrepreneur saddled with mental illness. Where was the fascinating plumb-the-depths soul-scraping of Raging Bull? For a while there, it was starting to look like all Scorsese wanted to do was to thank the Academy.
Then The Departed got dropped on our doorstep, like a rotten fish wrapped in yesterday's newspaper. Set in Boston 'some years ago,' it's a gangster movie in which both sides of the law ' cops and robbers ' act like moral delinquents, and Scorsese luxuriates in the foul-smelling atmosphere, the fetid air of depravity. It's not that the movie doesn't have a moral center, it's that the characters no longer know or care where it is. They've been playing the game of cat-and-mouse so long, adjusting the rules to suit themselves, that it's no longer about getting the cheese, it's about how you play the game. That may not be enough of a theme to lift The Departed into the Scorsese pantheon, next to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but there's no denying the sheer pleasure of the ride as we descend into hell.
Sporting a devilish goatee, Jack Nicholson is the Mephistopheles leading the way. Nicholson's Frank Costello has run South Boston for so long he's begun to lose touch with his own mortality. Absolute power corrupts absolutely; and Frank, thanks in part to a plant he's been nurturing within the Massachusetts State Police since it was a mere seedling, has pretty much free rein. As did Nicholson, apparently. It's a bravura performance, at once scary and funny, riding that fine line between eccentric and absurd. And Scorsese probably should have reined it in a little more often, protected Nicholson from his Brando-ish indulgences. But then we wouldn't have had the delightful spectacle of a three-time Oscar winner flashing a larger-than-life black rubber dildo in a darkened movie theater.
Frank's conducting a secret meeting with his mole, an up-and-coming 'statie' played by Matt Damon. We're not really told why a young kid would be willing to devote his entire life to impersonating a police officer so that Frank Costello could continue to gouge the good citizens of South Boston, but Damon is so convincing as a pug-nosed careerist ' his Good Will Hunting accent comes in handy ' that the audience practically lines up to punch him in the schnozzle. We're pretty used to cops posing as robbers, but we're not quite as used to robbers posing as cops, and the divided loyalty gives The Departed a dizzying sense of moral relativity. And that ain't the half of it. The police have also planted a mole within Costello's organization, a tortured hotshot brought to squirming life by Leonardo DiCaprio.
We've all been waiting for DiCaprio, a talented actor with boyish enthusiasm, to grow up, and he's made great strides in Gangs of New York and The Aviator. But this may be his most mature performance yet, a sensitive portrait of a man who can no longer remember whether he's a good guy or a bad guy. Recruited for undercover work straight out of the police academy, DiCaprio's Billy Costigan has his work cut out for him convincing Costello that he's meant for the thug's life, but with savagery as his calling card he gets the job done. And DiCaprio, who still seemed like a boy sent to do a man's job in Gangs of New York, stands on his own two feet while holding on to that emotional receptiveness that's made him such a captivating screen presence for so long. Even when he's lying through his teeth, Billy's face is an open book.
Everybody's lying through their teeth in The Departed, and if it's sometimes difficult to sort out the truth, not to mention the plot, it was even more difficult to sort it out in Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong action movie that The Departed is based on. To my knowledge, nobody has ever come up with a story featuring two moles before, each mole burrowing in the opposite direction. And the result isn't just additional, it's exponential, especially when Damon's character is assigned the task of smoking out the mole who's infiltrated the department's Special Investigative Unit ' i.e., himself. Complicating things even further is the fact that the two moles share the same woman (Vera Farmiga), a police psychiatrist who's moved in with Damon but is increasingly drawn to DiCaprio, a patient with quite a story to tell.
It can all start to seem a little too elaborately self-contained ' a game of chess played via correspondence, with cell phones substituting for mailing envelopes. (These guys don't go anywhere without their Nokias.) And the movie's opening shots of actual footage from the anti-busing violence of 1974 turns out to be the only time we feel like we're grounded in reality. But who needs to be grounded in reality when you're soaring this high? Supplied with some resplendently guttersnipish dialogue by scriptwriter William Monahan, the entire cast ' shout-outs to Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg ' chews away at the scenery, like dirty little rats. And what scenery! Leaving behind the church altar for the mean streets of Southie, Scorsese has managed to find his way back home. This may not be the Best Picture, but it's the most alive.