Considering how over-due Martin Scorsese was not only for an Oscar for Best Director but also for Best Picture, I was afraid that The Departed might be a well-made but ultimately average crime thriller which only took the top prize as a compensation by the Academy. Well, I was glad to learn that I was wrong.
The Departed tells the thrilling story of two men – one is a member of a crime gang and works undercover at the police, the other one is a cop who works undercover in the crime gang. When both discover the other’s existence, they must work hard and careful to expose the other one’s identity before being exposed themselves. Considering that this is a Martin-Scorsese-movie, the story offers a lot of violence but also intelligent character development that keeps the viewers' attention and interest the whole time.
A lot of the credit goes to the outstanding cast. Leonardo DiCaprio has probably never been better than as the undercover-cop who must constantly fear for his life and his identity. Matt Damon isn’t on the same level but he also plays his part with much dedication and his natural charm helps him easily to create a character that is both appealing and off-putting. I never thought that I would ever hear the words ‘Academy Award nominee Mark Wahlberg’ but Marky Mark leaves a memorable expression as the foul-mouthed, hot-headed cop and makes his character much more three-dimensional than the writing allowed him. Martin Sheen adds a lot of dignity to his part and is able to develop the whole relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio in just a few scenes. And special credit goes to Vera Famiga, stuck with an underwritten and banal part that only seems to exist as a sex toy for the two guys but she survives all this with a very layered and human performance. The only weak link in the cast is, surprisingly, Jack Nicholson who seems to have become a parody of himself by now and sleepwalks through this role with all the typical ‘Jack-Nicholson-tics’.
The biggest success of The Departed is that Scorsese constantly keeps the story going and never lets the viewers or the characters truly catch a break. The dynamics of the plot create a wonderful atmosphere and scenes of brutal violence contrast effectively with more quiet moments. The fate of the two central characters becomes extremely captivating, especially Leonardo DiCaprio wonderfully shows how his character seems to come closer and closer to a nervous breakdown. It’s not a very deep story that tackles any social issues but it’s a crime thriller on a very high level in which the characters drive the story instead of the other way around. Special mention must also go to the fantastic use of music.
Scorsese certainly knows what he is doing here and The Departed constantly shows us that few directors have such a talent for this genre than he has. Okay, the final shot of the movie may be one of the worst in his career and is about as subtle as a plane crash but overall, The Departed is a gripping and fascinating look at two characters caught up in extreme circumstances.