Heroes and villains are different in one very important way: heroes have to follow the rules and villains don’t.
Because of this, movie-goers find villains more interesting than heroes, whose characters inevitably become boring. Martin Scorsese has become one of the most accomplished directors of the last 40 years by subscribing to this school of thought.
When you think of “Gangs of New York,” for example, most people don’t know who Amsterdam Vallon is, but everyone who’s seen the movie can recall Daniel Day-Lewis’ fiery portrayal of Bill the Butcher. His bad guys have always been more memorable than his good guys.
This could also be because even his good guys oftentimes don’t follow the rules. This blurring of the line between good and evil has been taken to new levels in his newest crime saga, “The Departed.”
The film is centered around the Massachusetts State Police and their plot to bring down an organized crime outfit in South Boston.
The outfit is run by Frank Costello, a ruthless leader played by Jack Nicholson.When Officer Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) joins the department, they see him as the perfect candidate to infiltrate Costello’s group as the department’s informant.
Costigan has a dark past and is tied to the streets through his father. The problem is that Costello already has a mole inside the “stateys” in Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon).
Sullivan has been groomed by Costello since he was a boy and comes into the department with high marks and a bright future. In fact, when the department realizes there’s a mole in their ranks, they appoint Sullivan in charge of finding out who it is. So, as he puts it, “I gotta find myself.”
What ensues is a tightly wound crime drama that unravels with increasing momentum until its conclusion. Costigan pulls a “Donnie Brasco” and effortlessly assimilates himself into a world of organized crime. Sullivan is quietly sly and extremely intelligent, fooling everyone in the department with ease.
It’s hard to identify who is good and who is bad because even the good guys are vulgar and brash. The characters are all emotionally afflicted and brilliantly played by Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen. The scenes between Wahlberg and Damon are just as electric as those between DiCaprio and Nicholson. DiCaprio again shows why he is becoming the defining actor of his generation.
Nicholson’s turn as Costello gives new meaning to the word sinister and Damon’s largely overlooked performance is his best to date. It’s a rare case in which an overloaded cast yields the sum of its parts. The characters are given a great script to work with and the result is one of the best-acted films you will ever see.
William Monohan earned an Oscar nod for his adaptation based on the 2002 Japanese film “Internal Affairs.” With gritty dialog and vicious violence, Scorsese directs the script without compromise.
You never get the feeling when watching a Scorsese film that he concedes any part of his vision and “The Departed” is no different, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as “Goodfellas.”
The film has received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It’s the director’s sixth nomination for the award, which has eluded him since his first nod in 1980 for “Raging Bull.” If he does receive the elusive statuette it will be much deserved, for Scorsese has crafted a classic. This is what all crime dramas should aspire to be.