In Martin Scorsese’s latest effort, the title of the film refers to those who have died. The irony of the movie lies in the adjective most used by other characters to describe them: faithful. In this story about broken loyalties and misplaced allegiance, no one is truly faithful. The tangled and intriguing plotlines of the main characters intersect at so many points that it often requires a lot of mental effort to discern who is working for whom against whom, and so on. These intricacies, in the hands of any other director, might have been disastrous, but in Scorsese’s hands, they’re very powerful.
The film revolves around two “rats”, as Jack Nicholson’s Irish mob boss Frank Costello likes to call them. Leonardo DiCaprio plays an undercover policeman who has infiltrated Costello’s gang that runs the Boston underworld. Matt Damon is a detective who was groomed since childhood by Costello to serve as his mole in the Boston state police. The story follows the two men as they try to subvert the operations of the organizations they’ve infiltrated, while adamantly trying to snuff out the mole on the other side. Through the course of the film, they constantly stay one step ahead of the other, all the while oblivious to the ways in which their lives coincide more than they intend.
Sound complicated? Try adding several other moles, informants, and subversive operations and you have the makings of a potentially baffling story. This is where Scorsese’s skill serves him best. He continues to have one of the best storytelling minds working in film today; he knows just where the story is going and just how long it takes to get there. The style is similar to his 1990 film Goodfellas in its handling of exposition and development of characters from boys into men. In this movie, that meticulous narrative construction carries the entire story. From the first few moments, the film is constantly moving, telling the story at a near dizzying pace. What keeps it from careening over the proverbial cliff is the expert camerawork, employing some of Scorsese’s most intense visual techniques to date.
Nearly every aspect of the film is hard-hitting. No character is totally safe from the brutal violence that constantly threatens to engulf them all. They are soldiers engaged in a war, but with little sense of loyalty that in the end might keep them honorable. Scorsese keeps them literally and figuratively in the dark, with the littlest bits of information carrying the weight of life and death. It is intense from beginning to end, with not just the possibility of death hanging over them, but also the possibility that, despite all of their best intentions, they might lose their identities forever.
All this is accompanied by great accomplishments on other levels. Jack Nicholson is great as mob boss Costello, and DiCaprio and Damon carry the weight of their stories excellently, helping to strengthen the convoluted narrative. Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and others back it all up with interesting supporting characters.
Overall, it’s a masterful film that never fails to entertain. While I could have done without one or two of the several plot twists in the final moments, Scorsese still delivers a powerful story with surprisingly interesting issues at its core.