THE DEPARTED (2006)
An undercover cop and a mole in the police attempt to identify each other while infiltrating an Irish gang in South Boston.
First, a confession: when writing my retrospective for Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), I described a key component of his directorial career trajectory, before and after its release, as his focus on “characters [immersing] themselves in a… deviant bubble where they seem to truly come alive—abandoning… the world around them in the process.” In terms of Scorsese’s expertise in the modern crime genre, I found the sentiment fitting, particularly in terms of how it applied to Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990) or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)—but it didn’t acknowledge the films Scorsese made in the interim between those three works. And of course, the films he made after Goodfellas itself.
Indeed, the spiralling variety of Scorsese’s filmography makes it impossible for anyone familiar with his work to reduce him to a mob-flick-niche snob favourite. Even with crime films released post-Goodfellas such as Gangs of New York (2002) and Casino (1995), Scorsese crafted romances the likes of The Age of Innocence (1993), religious epics such as The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and not to mention expansively sprawling biographical works like Kundun (1997) and The Aviator (2004). There were differences in themes he expertly flaunted, and even if some of these films also fit into Scorsese’s familiar self-destructive masculine archetype, the way in which he orchestrated its appearances constantly evolved. He’d transcend genre and convention to deliver something equally as fresh and enlightening with every conceivable turn, growing with every new film he put out into the world.
So when Scorsese finally made a proper return to the modern crime thriller scene in 2006, a full 11 years after Casino, something in the air—the general atmosphere of stillness in the global cinematic world, perhaps—seemed to shift, a signal of the calm before an enlightening, powerful storm. And there wasn’t a person in the world who didn’t seem to recognise it as the typhoon that was The Departed soon rumbled in and came crashing down. Indeed, The Departed has gone down in 21st-century film history as an Academy Award winner for ‘Best Picture,’ a staple top choice for numerous critics’ favourite films of 2006, and a consistent ‘Best Director’ winner for Scorsese in various awards ceremonies—a torrentially undeniable crater of an impact for a film so relatively young and recent.
However, what bought it so much attention then, and what still makes it as robust now, is how it’s a wryly clever, at points Shakespearean tale of deceit, identity, guilt, and how true selves are pushed into the forefront by Stockholm-esque dedication to false appearances. Laced with divinely ironic humor and intertwined with the hyper-masculine downfall arc that Scorsese seems to now have so intimately mastered, The Departed feels like yet another culmination for Scorsese in a career so filled to the brim with similarly miraculous peaks. It’s a sign of his continued evolution that both marked a return to tradition while simultaneously blazing a path beyond its limits.
Based on Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s widely-acclaimed film Infernal Affairs (2002) and exchanging its noirish Hong Kong setting for the labyrinthian verve of Boston, Massachusetts, The Departed starts with a montage of Boston’s history with bus and education segregation before introducing us to none other than a young Colin Sullivan. He’s crossed paths with the sleazy, intimidating mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in 1986, who’s ominously shrouded in shadows as the two of them see each other in a restaurant, with the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” playing in the background. After Costello appeals to Sullivan with some food and a comic book—a moment that, unbeknownst to Sullivan, binds his fate to Costello’s—their next encounter soon takes place in a car shop. In the midst of what appears to be a lecture, Costello proudly proclaims to Sullivan that in his youth he was taught by those around him that people could either become “cops or criminals.” As he steps out of the shadows, however, he instead drops the line “… when you’re facing a loaded gun… what’s the difference?”
Smash cut to 20 years later, where Sullivan (Matt Damon) is now a dedicated member of Costello’s mob, having infiltrated the Massachusetts State Police to serve as a mole. Training for the force alongside him is a young, brash recruit named Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has an undercover operation of his own assigned to him by the police; serve jail time and probation in order to fit into Costello’s mob and gain information out of him. As the two of them settle into their respective roles, however, a deal between Costello’s mob and a Chinese gang over stolen microprocessors goes awry, preventing the police from catching anyone on the scene… and tipping Costello off to the presence of a mole in his crew. What follows from there is a gradually tightening knot of a rat-eat-rat story, with each individual point marked on the rope coming together as the stakes heighten minute-by-minute, and as Sullivan and Costigan uncover more and more breadcrumbs about each other’s identities.
It’s worth prefacing what follows here by noting that The Departed is an impressively brisk movie—more so than perhaps anything Scorsese’s made before or since. Despite its sizable 150-minute runtime and its windingly complex twists and turns, the film takes on a kind of fever-pitch allegro tempo that gives it an air of sincere urgency, amplifying the emotional stakes and immersion of its narrative, and preventing the film from ever once seeming like it’s playing a frantic game of catch-up. With inseparable Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker in the cutting room, and Michael Ballhaus operating the camera on set, the airtightness of this effect is about as good as you’ll get from a Martin Scorsese film. It’s nothing short of a virtuosic balancing act of plot threads, performances, and pacing set to the colours, edgy chiaroscuro, and grimy backstreet corners of Boston’s underground crime scene. As far as Scorsese and his co-creative’s control over craft goes, it may not surpass expectations, but you can’t ask for much better than this.
To speak of The Departed‘s narrative is also to speak of its multitude of layers: it’s a tale of deception, faith, and irony, woven together with scant yet inspired traces of the Bard’s tragic tale-spinning grace, and littered with subtle examinations of upbringing, religion, class, and post-9/11 paranoia. The intersections between Sullivan and Costigan’s paths are laden with coincidences so far-fetched in such a seemingly gritty, realistic environment, yet they feel like the only possible way to heighten the stakes of the film to such intense proportions in a world defined by mutable identities and alter-egos.
For one, outside of their simultaneous connections to the mob and the police, as well as their common working-class upbringings, Sullivan and Costigan are, most notably, both in relationships with a police psychiatrist named Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), whose extensive affair with Costigan even after having moved in with Sullivan adds yet another layer and emotional level to this spiralling story of constant betrayal and espionage. Even the world around them never once ceases to blear the line between rigid dualities. The police force and Costello’s gang are filled with their fair shares of infighting, corruption, and complexities, in turn making them as entities—much like Sullivan and Costigan within them—both sides of what amounts to the same blood-stained coin.
No production of such a histrionic tale would be complete without a solid troupe of actors, and the cast of A-listers in The Departed—DiCaprio, Damon, Nicholson, and a slew of others—are, as expected, nothing short of impressive. The foundation for the film’s three protagonists seems to be set by a slick supporting cast, made up of actors such as Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Ray Winstone, who, even with relatively minor roles, highlight the most distinct characterisations of their respective institutions, allowing the leads’ portrayals of Sullivan, Costigan, and Costello to be set against an immersive, convincing backdrop. DiCaprio brings a kind of earnest, clever sense of brashness to Costigan that at once allows him to come off as a deeply shrewd, at points perhaps overindulgent, risk-taker, constantly keeping his cover from being unveiled to Costello at every possible turn. Yet it’s also in his moments of vulnerability that DiCaprio gives us the impression that Costigan could very well crack under the stress of doing so at any point—that he’s fearfully aware of his façade slipping away slowly, yet fights to maintain it anyway.
In contrast, Damon brings a kind of complex charm to Sullivan’s stoic exterior, not to mention the way his upbringing under Costello since his childhood has deeply affected his worldview. There’s a shame that Sullivan clearly seems to carry in addressing anything from his past and Southie background that might hold him back from obtaining more and more power, both in Costello’s mob as well as the police force that he’s so effortlessly infiltrated, and it’s a key contributor to the way that Damon shows how Sullivan’s façade, too, seems to shake as he begins biting off more than he can chew. Behind it all, of course, is Costello himself, who Jack Nicholson imbues with an overbearing, larger-than-life charisma; he’s a Shakespearean regal archetype tinged with the madness of Lear, and who’s hiding his own secrets underneath the values instilled on him by decades of mob life. It’s made clearer over time, however, that his attachment towards Costigan and Sullivan as potential successors in the mob is what begins to drive him even more than his ruthless mafioso tendencies, and even he’s not exempt from showing an exploitably vulnerable side to the other characters in the narrative.
Watching The Departed barrel its way towards its jarring yet perhaps inevitable final 15-minutes—slicing its Gordian Knot of deception in two—is simply an experience to behold, not just because the conclusion it leads its characters down is undeniably shocking, but because it’s also so divinely ironic, so conflicting in its narrative wit, that after some consideration, it becomes difficult to imagine it ending any other way. Scorsese’s work on The Departed is clearly a very far cry from his previous work on Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, or anything else that precedes it; that’s relatively out of the question at this point. Yet, seeing him wildly expand from here as well into films as wildly contrasting as, say, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Irishman (2019), is clearly a sign that The Departed itself served as both a singular point of culmination for his continued evolution, as well as yet another piece of his decades-long legacy as one of the greatest directors of his—and of any—time in film history.
In the hands of anyone else, a film as airtight as this could very well have been the zenith of a less prolific director’s career… but, once again, this is Martin Scorsese himself. It should come as no surprise that it’s yet another incredible work in a filmography of classics—and for that matter, soon-to-be classics, too.
USA | 2006 | 151 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Martin Scorsese.
writer: William Monahan (based on the film ‘Infernal Affairs’ by Alan Mak & Felix Chong).
starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson & Alec Baldwin.