There is no better filmmaker than Martin Scorsese. You could reasonably argue that some – past and present – are in the same league, but you’d be hard-pressed to make a case that there’s anyone better. Scorsese just seems to have a complete mastery of how to tell a story on film. He usually works at the top of his game. The Departed is his latest effort, and it’s one of the best pictures of the year. Only time will tell if it takes its place alongside Scorsese classics Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas; I have a feeling it just might.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a young man who graduates from the police academy and tries to get a job as a Boston cop. Because he comes from a family with long-standing ties to the mob, his superior officers, Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), doubt his sincerity in wanting to join the force. However, they offer him a chance to use his connections by going undercover. His mission is to get close to Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a notorious local mobster that they’ve been trying to bring down for years. Costigan reluctantly agrees and, after a fake jail stint designed to offer “proof” that he’s not a cop, he begins traversing Boston’s underworld, creating a ruckus in order to get attention.
He eventually gets noticed by Costello, who promptly puts him to work. Costigan’s job involves doing some of the requisite “dirty work” that goes with the terrain. The mobster is in the process of negotiating the sale of munitions chips to a foreign buyer. To make sure he avoids capture, he has sent one of his minions, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), into the police academy. Posing as an upstanding law enforcement official, Sullivan is initially fed information by Costello that helps him advance quickly through the ranks of the Boston P.D. Then, after being brought in to collaborate on a federal investigation of Costello, Sullivan begins tipping off his boss about pending raids and sting operations. Costigan, meanwhile, is alerting the cops and the feds as to Costello’s operations.
Eventually, both sides figure out that there’s a rat in their midst. Sullivan and Costigan are each assigned to figure out who the other one is. This becomes more complicated as Costello’s big deal gets closer. The two men have something else in common: a police psychiatrist named Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). She’s officially dating Sullivan, but sees Costigan as a client and subsequently begins a flirtation with him. It’s an interesting relationship as we get the sense that she knows the “troubled” guy is actually more morally sound than the “cop.”
The Departed is based on a 2002 Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs. That picture was interesting, but this one goes far more in-depth in the way it shows Costigan and Sullivan diving into their undercover roles. The former taps into his inner anger to appear as a street tough, while the latter exploits his clean-cut looks and smooth Irish charm to deflect suspicion. The tension mounts as they each try to keep their cover from being blown, even as they unknowingly investigate each other. Scorsese (working from a tight screenplay by William Monahan) does a masterful job of conveying the danger of being an informant, from the psychological torture of constant paranoia to the threat of severe consequences should one’s true identity be revealed. As he did so well in Goodfellas, the director gives the movie an increasingly panicky feel that puts you in the shoes of the main characters.
I noticed something interesting that Scorsese does throughout the movie that helps achieve this effect. A lot of directors would switch back and forth between the two main characters. We’d see a complete scene with one guy, followed by a complete scene showing what the other was doing. Scorsese, in contrast, often cuts back and forth within the same scene. This approach makes us feel like Costigan and Sullivan are inextricably connected even though they don’t share screen time until the end.
The Departed, on the surface, looks like a pretty standard cop action movie. However, it’s themes run much deeper. Many of Scorsese’s movies deal with ideas of punishment and retribution. That’s certainly true here too. He’s also recently been quoted as saying that none of the story’s characters are forgiven. Certainly all of them at some point face the repercussions of their actions. Most interesting to me, though, was the ongoing suggestion that pretending to be someone you are not (for whatever reason) only causes the figurative death of your real self. A life spent pretending offers little opportunity for anything genuine, and that is the real tragedy.
While Scorsese pulls the strings behind the camera, his A-list cast delivers gold in front of it. DiCaprio and Damon turn in the best work of their careers. Because the characters they play are – for various reasons – duplicitous, the actors’ performances have to work on a couple levels simultaneously. They achieve this with award-worthy brilliance. Meanwhile, the ever-reliable Nicholson looms over the proceedings with a disturbingly real portrait of evil. Costello gets the movie’s first line, and it sums up his worldview: “I don’t want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me.” The actor has played bad guys before, but he does it again here with originality and frightening menace.
The Departed has a compelling story, interesting characters, and an increasingly intense pace. The acting is superb, and Scorsese has again crafted a movie with enough substance to make you want to see it more than once. The picture also has a surprising sense of dark humor. Like I said, the filmmaker usually works at the top of his game. This is a fine example of him doing just that.
The Departed is essential viewing, and the special 2-disc DVD is essential to own for Scorsese fans. The quality of the bonus features perfectly matches the quality of the film itself. There are nine deleted scenes, all of which include an on-camera introduction from the director himself. As Scorsese explains, not all deleted scenes are bad; some are, in fact, quite good but end up “melting away” as the picture takes shape. His point is well proven by the scenes, all of which are perfectly strong on their own.
The feature entitled “Crossing Criminal Cultures” examines Scorsese’s upbringing in Little Italy, as well as the old Warner Bros. gangster pictures he grew up on, to show how his work was influenced. “The Story of the Boston Mob” is a mini-documentary about the Boston gangster who influenced the Jack Nicholson character. This feature is particularly interesting because it gives a real-life context to the film’s plot. The best bonus feature is the 90-minute feature “Scorsese on Scorsese,” originally produced for Turner Classic Movies. This retrospective look at Scorsese’s career should be required viewing for anyone who is serious about the art of cinema. It looks at Scorsese’s best-known works, but also some of his less-famous ones, all while demonstrating what a versatile filmmaker he is.
The Departed also comes in a single-disc, movie-only edition, but for such a brilliant crime drama, you owe it to yourself to spring for the 2-disc set. It’s one well worth owning.
( out of four)
The Departed is rated R for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material. The running time is 2 hours and 31 minutes.
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