Brilliantly acted, enthrallingly told, this vast, operatic saga centers on two men, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), both Boston Southies. Both are pretending to be the opposite of what they really are. Both are caught between the fear of having their true selves revealed and the fear of hiding themselves so completely they can never come back.
It opens with a voice. A man is telling us how it works, and we can hear in his tone that he expects to be listened to, not just because he knows what he is talking about, but because he is used to power, having it and making the most of it, and especially enjoying it. We see him shaking down a store owner. His crude comment to the man’s young daughter shows more about his power over them and he fear he uses to wield it than the menacing men in his shadow. And we see that he plans to be around for a long time as he tosses a kid some money and plants a seed that there is more money to be had.
When that boy grows up, the man, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) tells him to get a job as a cop so he can provide information and cover from the inside. Sullivan proves to be a top student and is quickly promoted to the elite detective squad assigned to bring in Costello and his men.
Meanwhile, the chief detective, Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen), has the same idea. He takes Costigan, a promising rookie with family ties to Costello and a history of getting into trouble, and sends him deep undercover in the Costello organization, starting with a bogus guilty plea and a real jail sentence. To protect Costigan, only Queenan and his deputy, Dignam (Mark Wahlberg in a brilliantly fiery and hilariously profane performance) know his identity. So as Sullivan and Costigan circle each other, each trying to find the mole in the other’s operation, they also become involved with the same woman (Vera Farmiga), a therapist.
She is just one of several mirrors that provide Costigan and Sullivan with reflections of themselves. The movie is filled with parallels — Costello and Queenan as well as the two young men they send into danger both psychic and mortal. Scorcese’s muscular mastery of story and action, the themes of loyalty, identity, power, and seduction, and the powerhouse cast make this one of the most compelling films of the year.
Parents should know that this is an extremely intense and disturbing film with frequent graphic violence, mostly with guns but also knives, fists, and slamming people with and into many blunt objects. Many characters are injured and killed and there are shots of bloody injuries. A character holds up a severed hand. There are explicit sexual references, many very crude and insulting, and non-explicit situations. Characters drink, smoke, and use and abuse drugs, street and medicinal. Characters use very strong language, including racial, ethnic, and homophobic epithets. Many characters are criminals and many lie, steal, murder, and betray each other.
Families who see this movie should talk about the compromises the people in the story must make in order to achieve their goals. When do you stop being one of the good guys (or bad guys) because you have to prove yourself to the group you are pretending to be a part of? What qualities are necessary to go undercover for such protracted periods? Why was Costigan chosen for the job, and what does the way he was interviewed tell you about what they were looking for?
Families who enjoy this movie should watch the Hong Kong original, Infernal Affairs. They will also enjoy Kurt Vonnegut’s book about an American who goes undercover during WWII as a Nazi, Mother Night, the BBC series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Scorcese’s other films, especially Goodfellas.