‘When I was your age they would say we can become cops, or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?’ (Frank Costello)
Martin Scorsese’s crime thriller ‘The Departed’, winner of an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2006, is considered to be the director’s finest take on the mob theme since ‘Goodfellas’ (1990) (intermittently he also directed ‘Casino’ (1995) and ‘Gangs of New York’ (2002)). With many great actors involved in this movie, and with such a meticulously constructed script, this is no wonder. ‘The Departed’ is set in the south of Boston during the time when the police wages their war against the Irish-American criminal syndicate. The film starts off with young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) befriending the untouchable lord of crime, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Years later, there emerge two cops: one – Colin Sullivan, only too ready to infiltrate the state police as an informer for Frank Costello, and another Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a guy who grew up in a criminal environment, who becomes a gang member working for Costello, while at the same time working as a undercover cop. When both the state police and the mob begin to suspect that there is an informer within their circle working for the other side, both Sullivan and Costigan must race against time to uncover the identity of another to save their lives.
‘The Departed’ script, written by William Monahan, shines with complexity and intelligence, and I will even venture to say that it is one of the best film scripts I have ever seen (incidentally it also won the Academy Award 2006). The script is based on a series of Chinese films shot in Hong Kong, but most evidently ‘Infernal Affairs’ (2002). This particular film story is actually written basing its account on the real life events of a Boston gangster, Whitey Bulger. Whitey Bulger terrorised Boston neighbourhood for over a decade, infiltrating the FBI’s organised crime unit in early 1990s and using his connections to his advantage. Growing in the Little Italy part of New York, it is clear why Scorsese would be taken by the script, and his primary interest lies in the understanding the life philosophy of people who are hiding behind other people’s identities. ‘The Departed’ becomes a film about so many different things: it explores moral questions, people’s motivations and relationships; in a way, it becomes some cinematic encyclopaedia on the psychology of human behaviour. The film is a real brain-teaser, where knowledge is the most sought-after prize and everyone in the film is willing to pay a very high price for it.
While many films may come to mind while watching ‘The Departed’, e.g. ‘Face-Off’ (1997), the movie may be most similar to ‘Donnie Brasco’ (1997), starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, because of its plot. ‘Donnie Brasco’ is based on the real story of an FBI undercover agent, Joseph Pistone, who infiltrates the mafia and get so close to the Boss, that he gets mafia promotions. While the two films are comparable in essence, ‘The Departed’ seems ten heads above ‘Donnie Brasco’ in terms of complexity, the sheer number of plot layers and unpredictability of the ending. ‘The Departed’ gets more intense as it progresses, especially at the point when the informers start to have agendas of their own, and sometimes the second viewing is advisable in order to understand every detail and catch every meaning in the dialogue.
The three main characters in ‘The Departed’: Colin Sullivan, Billy Costigan and Frank Costello can all make up their own character studies, being absolutely fascinating from a psychological viewpoint. Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent in the role of Billy Costigan, a man who severed his ties with crime, but still appears to work for the mob. It is DiCaprio who provides the necessary emotional input to this story: a good man torn between two worlds, at one time making a romantic connection with Sullivan’s new girlfriend. DiCaprio is Martin Scorcese’s Charlie (Harvey Keitel) from ‘Mean Streets’ (1973), who is a good person forced to do bad things. Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan is also good in a way he displays slyness and opportunism, and the role is not that unfamiliar to him as he ‘killed’ and took another person’s identity in his previous film ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ (1999).
Who steals all the limelight here is, of course, Jack Nicholson, and this is not because he plays the Baron of crime, but in a way he does it. He shows off his outstanding acting skills and has a magnificent screen presence. It is immediately evident, in every shot he is in, that his character commands authority, obedience and respect; he is feared all around, while at the same time, remaining in touch with the local community.
The supporting cast is equally great. Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin (where was he before, when he was younger?) and Vera Farmiga all have their spotlight, but its Mark Wahlberg in his role of abrasive detective Dignam who is virtually unrecognisable here, and, thus, rightly gaining his Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.
One of the problems I thought was the dialogue in this movie. It is sometimes hard to follow due to the jargon used, but yet again, this only adds to Scorsese’s want of realism and authenticity. Besides, the whole film is filled with such witty one-liners and quotes one would be forgiven for wanting pen and paper at hand. The dialogue is indeed polished to perfection, as the movie itself, with virtually no scene being out-of-tune or character unconsidered.
‘The Departed’s ending can be fiercely criticised and not unjustly so: it may appear silly or lacking in something vital. However, all this may only come to mind on the first viewing. On the second and third viewings of the film, one may suddenly realise that it may as well be acceptable that the film ended like it did. It should not be forgotten that Martin Scorsese is a man who is known for his portrayal of truth on screen, who perfects his films to achieve honestly and realism, however brutal it may appear, Goodfellas (in stark contrast to the romanticising of the mob life in The Godfather trilogy). So, at the end of the film, what on the first glance may appear like a comic twist a la Tarantino, can actually be categorised as the desire to portray violence/events as realistically as possible.
With an intelligent, pitch-perfect script, a never-ending list of great actors involved and outstanding directing, ‘The Departed’ becomes a must-see film for everyone, especially for those who value Scorsese’s work or are into gangster-movies. 10/10