Vivid conviction

Martin Scorsese enjoys making films about criminals. He likes representing their lives and their culture, and he often collaborates with actors who can improvise well, generating free-flowing, vernacular dialogue that’s sometimes hard to follow, but which creates an immersive sense that the audience is sharing their world with them. He’s also a technically gifted film-maker, who knows exactly how to craft a thriller for maximum suspense and impact. When he brings these two tendencies together, as in The Departed, he gives an impression of verisimilitude that many other mainstream directors can only marvel at. I say ‘impression’ because I clearly have no idea what it’s like to circulate in Boston’s Irish-American criminal underworld—no more than I know whether the film is a plausible representation of police undercover work. But the point is that Scorsese builds a world so vividly, and with such conviction, that it’s almost impossible for the viewer to disbelieve it. Naturally a large part of that world-building lies with his choice of actors, the way he directs them, and the certitude with which they inhabit their characters. Jack Nicholson plays a boss loosely based on the notorious Whitey Bulger, and he has a lot of fun with the part—‘Jack Nicholson having fun’ being one of the crowning glories of American cinema since the late 1960s. Nobody does a fundamentally unhinged but frighteningly intelligent psychopath like Nicholson does—although some of Scorsese’s regular collaborators are up there with him in terms of their ability to convince us that they’re really about to kill us. This is not an outing for his usual cronies, however—major parts are played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Mark Wahlberg, all actors that I’ve never found particularly interesting, although they are all doubtless good at their work. Scorsese brings out some brilliance from them here, however, and with a supporting cast that includes Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Ray Winstone, this movie hits hard in terms of the delivery of its script. The plot is a doozy, adapted from the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs: a police officer is deep undercover, infiltrating a dangerous criminal gang; meanwhile, one of his colleagues is in fact a plant for the same criminal gang, who has been nurtured and moulded since childhood by its leader. This is such an obvious knockout of a setup that I don’t really need to say anything else about it, and indeed it would be better if I didn’t, just in case anyone reading this has yet to see the film. Of course I missed it at the time, because it was hugely well-publicised, successful, critically lauded, and Oscar-laden. In fact I had never heard of it until shortly before I watched it, but it won Best Picture, and got Scorsese his only Best Director award. I don’t know if those are really deserved, given that it’s basically just brilliantly well-made, without having anything in particular to say. I mean, what we see of all the characters seems entirely plausible, but the story is hardly a deep dive into their inner lives, and there is nothing subtle at all about it. It is, however, one of the most out-and-out entertaining films I’ve seen this year, and it is probably one of the best police thrillers ever made.


  1. Great review. I loved this film when I watched it for the first time a couple of years ago. It had escaped me also until recently. Scorcese is one of the best directors for getting the most gripping and convincing performances from his actors whatever the setting or period and I know what you mean it is total immersion like you are there!

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