Faithful Departed

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As with any gnarly crime plot, this one dares to strain credulity. Once or twice, a skeptical viewer may ask, What are the odds? The odds that Billy would commit all manner of crimes, to prove his underworld bona fides, and never get so much as an interested glance, let alone a collar, from the cops who don't know he's one of them. The odds that Colin would rise so quickly in the force, and be deemed so trustworthy that he'd be assigned to sleuth out the rat on the team — himself. The Departed adds one coincidence even the Hong Kong film didn't dare: that both men would become romantically involved with the same woman, Madolyn, a police psychiatrist, well played by Vera Farmiga. (In the original, the shrink and the bad cop's girlfriend were separate characters.) Oh, and the cell phones all these guys whisper their subversions into — can't they be bugged?

Scorsese, surely the American cinema's most vigorous classicist, is also the unrivaled master of movie exposition. Nobody can get a movie going like him, and sustain it with camerabatics and an attention-deficit editing ethic. The problem with his films, if it is one, is that they often describe a degeneration based on repetition. His characters' tragic flaw is that their crimes are their obsessions; they become addicted to expressing the beast within themselves. This makes for explosive moments in an anti-dramatic trajectory, so his his films don't build, they simply accrue — and then collapse, like a runner exhausted at the end of a marathon.

IA to the rescue. Instead of unwinding, as Scorsese's movies tend to, this one keeps coiling, a python of a plot that puts the what-happens-next? element of standard, superior storytelling at the forefront of the audience's mind. Viewers are alerted to trust no one; immediately or ultimately, five of the characters will reveal that they are not what they seem. The anticipation of trickery keeps a movie crowd on its toes. And because the story is so strong, Scorsese can elaborate on it without looking self-indulgent. One visual strategy: he plants X's everywhere, on the walls and in diagonal grouping of characters, to suggest the crisscrossing of Billy and Colin, and of the four lines of conflict (Billy and Colin and their respective father figures) that keep converging and colliding. Sometimes, in an obvious visual correlative, the X's are in pairs: a double cross.

For those who've seen Infernal Affairs, the Scorsese movie will be an expert variation, without the wallop of the original. That's what usually keeps remakes from entering the Pantheon. But this one works on its own by allowing the director to touch on one of his favorite themes: the vectors of power and threat in male relationships, which here is complicated by the fact that the two main guys, whose mission is to find the other, don't meet until near the end of the movie.

Monahan has given Scorsese and the actors plenty to work with. Frank, played by Nicholson with a George Carlin goatee and crusty demeanor, is a juicy creation, a mobster who revels in his connoisseurship of executive violence. ("One of us had to die," he says of a gangland face-off. "With me it's usually the other one.") He has words of wisdom for a thug who says his mother is near death. "So we all are," Frank observes. "Act accordingly." In Billy he sees a bright, focused young man with ambitions, though Frank misreads them. "You wanna be me," he tells the kid, who replies, honestly for once, "I probably 'could' be you. But I don't 'wanna' be you."

Damon has said he's pleased to be playing a bad guy, but of course he's playing a bad guy playing a good guy. (He had a similar role, of the charming swine, in The Talented Mr. Ripley.) What's true about Colin's nature is that he's the man on the rise and on the make, with a practiced smile that can impress the cops and please the ladies. When he meets Madolyn, the shrink, he suavely spouts this apercu: "Freud said the Irish were the only people who were impervious to psychoanalysis." (The "impervious" is a lovely touch — it tells you Colin has rehearsed this line in his head — as is the oenophile's smoothness with which Damon spits out that mouthful of words.) The lies he has to tell to be successful in his job are so much a part of him, he might have ceased fretting about them. Colin left his morals behind in childhood, when Frank took him under his wing.

Damon's performance is suave and scrupulous; Nicholson has almost too much fun; and in a large, stalwart cast I especially liked Ray Winstone as Frank's ruthless hit man, and Farmiga as the woman two lonely men need to confide in or betray. DiCaprio is the standout. Every second of Billy's life is as a spy behind enemy lines; DiCaprio shows the tension such a man feels, the determination and the grace inside him.

This year, DiCaprio's toughest competition for a Best Actor Oscar may be himself — he's pretty sensational as a Rhodesian jewel smuggler in Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond, due out in December. He's gone from precocious child star (in What's Eating Gilbert Grape) to teen idol (in Titanic) to full-fledged Actor, brilliant at allowing the viewer to discover, as if in confidence, the emotions that roil his characters' souls. In his third shot with Scorsese, after Gangs of New York and The Aviator, DiCaprio has become the director's new DeNiro — implosive instead of explosive, but just as crucial to each other's success and identity. I hope they make more films together, with DiCaprio as the tortured good cop in Scorsese's cinematic inferno.

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