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Compared to the scope and complexity of his last few films, The Departed has an extremely simple story. Adapted from a Hong Kong thriller called Infernal Affairs (Wu Jian Dao), there’s nothing revolutionary about this tale of loyalty and betrayal. Like many Hong Kong films, it appeals unselfconsciously to the mythic and the archetypal. It deals in a currency of honour and fate, without resorting to the campy irony that Hollywood feels compelled to heap on such old-fashioned values. And yet, in Scorsese’s hands, it becomes something much more – a framework in which to explore a trio of fascinating character studies.
Scorsese has a well-deserved reputation for getting the best out of his casts, and his two young leads are ample evidence of this. DiCaprio has never been better. He brings the same intensity to this role as his Oscar nominated turn in The Aviator, but with a subtlety and control that eclipses anything he has done previously. His scenes with Jack Nicholson are particularly challenging and, since he never skips a beat, particularly rewarding.
As for Damon, an actor that many critics long ago dismissed as a one trick pony, his performance is close to flawless. For a man so used to being cast as the charming hero, he plays the weasel with uncommon fluidity. Granted he can’t manage the same emotional resonance as DiCaprio, but he makes up for it with oily self-assurance and pinpoint timing.
But, despite how impressive the youngsters are, it’s Jack Nicholson who steals the show. Just when it looked like he had resigned himself to playing harmless old farts for the rest of his career, along comes a part like Frank Costello and reminds us of just how dangerous and seductive Nicholson can be. At times hilarious, at times unhinged, Nicholson seems to swagger through this movie without a care in the world but, watched closely, he is like a man coming up for air.
With all this star studded posturing going on it’s easy to forget how strong the rest of the supporting cast are. Few directors can attract the likes of Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin to such small roles, and even fewer can coax these kinds of memorable performances out of a handful of lines. There’s literally not one weak performance in the film which, given that the cast runs into the dozens, is pretty extraordinary.
Brilliant or not, The Departed isn’t for everyone. This is violent, foul-mouthed stuff with almost no morally redeeming features. There’s an underlying nihilism to the film – a kind of self-containing, self-consuming fatalism that defies our hunger for meaning. The movie exists only to perpetuate its own ends – it has no universal significance.
And, in the end, so what? The Departed may not change the world, but it will certainly entertain it. After toiling over two self-conscious historical epics, Scorsese just wants to have some fun, and we are lucky enough to be invited along for the ride.
- Alistair Fairweather
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