Reviewed - The Departed: Martin Scorsese is back in brilliant form, directing an exceptional cast in a rich, involving morality thriller, writes Michael Dwyer.
'HEAVEN help the faithful departed," reads a Mass card on the Boston grave of an Irish immigrant early on in Martin Scorsese's new movie. Later, an Irish-American detective refers to a murder victim as "the departed". That term provides an apt title for an enthralling morality tale in which the mortality rate escalates in tandem with the tensions generated by its riveting narrative.
The storyline will be familiar to anyone who savoured the clever inversion of the good cop/bad cop set-up in the 2002 Hong Kong thriller, Infernal Affairs. Screenwriter William Monahan has seamlessly transposed its essence to present-day Boston, embellishing it with authentic dialogue that snaps and crackles.
Back at the top of his form after several ventures where period production values distracted from substance, Scorsese elegantly shapes this ripe material into a muscular thriller that is, by quite some way, his richest, most satisfying movie since GoodFellas (1990).
In a prologue set "some years ago", Irish-American gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) sets about grooming Colin Sullivan, the 12-year-old son of a janitor, as his protege. After engaging in some jovial philosophising, Costello casually reveals his utter ruthlessness as a cold-blooded killer.
As the grown-up Sullivan (Matt Damon) enters the police force to become Costello's mole, another young Irish-American, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who reeks of volatile attitude, proceeds through the police ranks and is chosen to go deep undercover within Costello's gang.
The parallel paths of Sullivan and Costigan inevitably intersect as both sides of the law realise that they have an informer among them. As the plot deviously coils and twists - and both undercover operatives increasingly risk exposure - the pressures and compromises of living a double life become as unbearable for the protagonists as the suspense that grips the viewer following their fates.
The catharsis is a brilliantly orchestrated finale of bloody resolution that is as taut, sweaty and edgy as the panic-stricken last day for the Ray Liotta character in GoodFellas. The violence in The Departed is more sporadic but just as jolting, and barely leavened with throwaway black humour, as when Costello's loyal right-hand man (Ray Winstone) quips, "Don't worry. He doesn't need his teeth anyway."
Beyond briefly including a night at the opera, Scorsese eschews Italian allusions for a movie steeped in Irish references: a gangster says "Sláinte" in a bar where an Irish signpost is a decoration; Nicholson adopts a deliberately Oirish accent to sing a verse of Mother Macree; The Dropkick Murphys invigorate an action sequence with driving céilí-rock; and Sullivan remarks, "Freud said the Irish were the only people impervious to psychoanalysis", although a clinical psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga) is the only significant woman in the scenario.
Catholic motifs abound - Sacred Heart pictures, Confession references and Crucifixion imagery - as prominently as Scorsese's familiar preoccupation with Catholic guilt, expressed in Costigan's growing disgust with the brutality he has to dispense, whereas Sullivan abandoned his moral scruples back in the church where we saw him as a pre-teen altar boy.
The casting is perfect. DiCaprio and Damon are terrific in the leading roles, oozing formidable screen presence. Nicholson is as flamboyantly Satanic as only he can be without ever tilting the movie off balance. And Mark Wahlberg steals every one of his scenes as an expletives-spitting special investigations officer.
From the beginning, as Gimme Shelter pulsates on the soundtrack, the movie is stamped with the propulsive energy that's a trademark of Scorsese's most accomplished movies. That rhythm never slackens over a fleeting two-and-a-half hours of expertly constructed, dynamically staged and supremely stylish cinema.
For a director who's been bridesmaid so often at the Oscars, this could - and should - be the film that finally sends Scorsese all the way up to the aisle on to the podium.