DiCaprio, as Billy Costigan, stands in front of Vera Farmiga, as Dr. Madolyn Madden. His distressed aura and worn face startle her as they begin to talk. After several uneasy moments, she says, “Your vulnerability is really freaking me out right now.”
It is this kind of vulnerability that makes DiCaprio’s performance in The Departed his best. He is able to play that broken, mentally tough kid from Southie, while showing viewers that his character suffers from the heavy truths and burdens that continue to mount inside of him. At times, his performance is heart-wrenching as the complex lies he has spun continue to well up and surround him. This conflict is inherent in the very nature of the double agent he plays.
As a mobster, he seeks to prove himself in a town that is ready to cast him aside. Letting loose a fearsome rage, Costigan evinces a sense of unprecedented strength and ire. But that’s simply an act he puts on as he attempts to do his real job. As a cop, Costigan attempts to uphold a sense of honor, in spite of mob informant Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who has infiltrated the police. His tact as an undercover cop is as much a testament to his skills as an officer as his desire to keep himself from ending up in a hole. His desire to preserve himself is in direct opposition to his desire to lock away mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), yet he perseveres. Nobody likes a rat, making Costigan’s life on both sides of the law a fragile one. The world is seemingly pitted against him and, sadly, he does not get a happy ending.
Therein lies the brilliance in DiCaprio’s multifaceted performance, as Costigan seldom lets his true feelings show, making the aforementioned scene between Costigan and Madden all the more potent and touching. As an undercover cop, he can never reveal himself, though it may cost him his life. Though that vulnerability is seen expressly in the intimate scene with Madden, this same vulnerability underlies much of the rest of the film. He fears for his life, but remains shackled to his quest for justice.
This vulnerability manifests itself in other ways and adds a sense of cohesion to other moments in the film. In other scenes, DiCaprio’s ability to give each distinct feature of his performance equal weight adds beautifully to the transitions between scenes. As he is debriefed by Costello, he quietly, without so much as a fleeting glance, removes himself from his gangster-self. In an instant, the urgency of the situation is conveyed as he calls the police captain, relaying information and planning his next move. His hastened speech, shortness of breath, and darting eyes attest to his sense of unease. And yet, these things are quickly subdued and replaced with stoicism. The emotional weight of one preceding scene is masterfully transferred to the latter, as the stress felt from being in the lion’s den is transferred to the imminent nature of the investigation. This is much to the credit of DiCaprio’s performance, which sets the tone and pace for a majority of the film.
DiCaprio, in The Departed, gives viewers a character they cannot help but sympathize with. When he is suddenly shot down, all his trials, his earnest conviction in the pursuit of justice, are for naught. At his funeral, his photo evokes the memories of his conviction and plight. His mission for justice and self-preservation have both failed. He faced his challenges with stern determination, noticing the risks but never shying away from them. DiCaprio himself did not shy away from the risks in this performance. He had his best performance in this film, in which he was truly was playing two roles. Neither role suffered, as DiCaprio was able to capture the most compelling parts of both.
Speaking to Sullivan about getting what you want in the world, Costello says, “No one gives it to you. You have to take it.” Though these words are directed at Costigan’s opposite, they apply markedly to DiCaprio.
For all his Oscar endeavors, his best performance was not one where he stumbled throughout the snowy woods and looked sternly into camera, but one in which he stood up, and took everything thrown his way as a real man frightened beyond belief.
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