Director : Martin Scorsese
Screenplay : William Monahan (based on the film Infernal Affairs written by Alan Mak and Felix Chong)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Leonardo DiCaprio (Billy Costigan), Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan), Jack Nicholson (Frank Costello), Mark Wahlberg (Dignam), Martin Sheen (Oliver Queenan), Ray Winstone (Mr. French), Vera Farmiga (Madolyn), Anthony Anderson (Brown), Alec Baldwin (Ellerby), Kevin Corrigan (Cousin Sean), James Badge Dale (Barrigan), David O’Hara (Fitz)
In many circles The Departed is being hailed as a return to form for Martin Scorsese, but I don’t see it. This is not to say that The Departed isn’t a good (even close to great) film and doesn’t bear many of Scorsese’s hallmarks--it is and it does. Rather, I question why it marks a “return to form” since, as far as I can tell, Scorsese never went anywhere.
Yes, Gangs of New York (2002), despite many good qualities, was a significant disappointment, if only because it had been gestating as Scorsese’s dream project for three decades. The Aviator (2004) was a film that truly scratched the edges of greatness, a monumentally effective throwback to Hollywood’s golden era, but some felt it didn’t bear enough of his imprint. Digging back further, we can see the 1990s were a decade of experimentation and risk-taking, from the austere religious epic Kundun (1997), to his gorgeous Edith Wharton adaptation The Age of Innocence (1993), to his outlandishly perverse 1991 remake of Cape Fear.
Ah, and then lurking right behind Cape Fear is the one that haunts the past two decades of Scorsese’s career: GoodFellas (1990). GoodFellas is the perennial Scorsese classic, especially among excitable young cineastes who feed off its energy and intensity, its violence and its black comedy, its irresistible narrative momentum. Like Taxi Driver (1976) in the ’70s and Raging Bull (1980) in the ’80s, GoodFellas is the film that Scorsese has been forced to live up to ever since, and many dismissed 1995’s Casino right out of the gate for the simple reason that it was too much like it and fell too far short.
In this respect, then, it is not hard to see why The Departed is seen as a return to form. It’s a crime saga with gallons of blood, a punchy classic-rock driven soundtrack, and a relentless drive toward a nihilistic conclusion. It is Scorsese playing Scorsese’s greatest hits, and no one does it better. If the film feels at times a bit overcooked, we can rest assured in Scorsese’s technical prowess and humorously self-conscious jabs at his own tendencies. The Departed is not a self-parody, but at times it verges into that terrain, never so much as in the final shot, which follows a series of grisly plot developments with a simple and unexpectedly jokey image.
The physical and ethnic terrain of The Departed is both familiar and alien to a Scorsese crime picture. We are once again deep in the heart of organized crime, but rather than being set in the realm of New York Italian immigrants, we are in the world of South Boston Irish mobsters. Also, half of the film takes place within the police force, something that has been entirely missing from Scorsese’s oeuvre.
In his third pairing with Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a young man who breaks with his family’s criminal history by going to the police academy, but then finds himself being asked to shed his entire life in order to penetrate a notorious organized crime ring led by Jack Nicholson’s brutal kingpin Frank Costello. At the same time, Costello has sent a young man named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) to the police academy so that he may penetrate the Boston police and relay information back to the gang.
The story was adapted by screenwriter William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) from the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs. And, while it may sound odd on the surface for Scorsese to be remaking a Hong Kong film, it actually makes perfect sense because Scorsese’s crime dramas were among the chief inspirations for the Hong Kong New Wave that took the world by the storm in the early 1990s with films like John Woo’s The Killer (1989).
Deception and identity are The Departed’s primary motifs, with both Costigan and Sullivan constantly risking the loss of their true selves as they burrow deeper and deeper into their respective targets. Costigan, who responds with increasing paranoia and panic, would seem to be at the most moral risk since he is ostensibly doing “good” by associating himself with violence and mayhem. As a Scorsese protagonist, though, he is hardly lilly white to begin with, although he grows increasingly agitated at the moral compromises he is constantly forced to make in order to maintain his cover. Sullivan, on the other hand, never wavers from his commitment to Costello, yet we sense inner turmoil in him, as well; despite being a villain, he is strangely sympathetic, perhaps because Matt Damon’s Bah-stan accent makes him seem like Will Hunting gone bad.
The Departed, at nearly two and a half hours in length, packs in plenty of mayhem and conflict both between and within the cops and criminals. There is overt tension throughout the police force, particularly because the two men in charge of the undercover operations, the patriarchal Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the hot-tempered Detective Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), refuse to share information with others about their moles. Costello’s gang, founded as it is on violence, shows signs of age and wear. Nicholson gives a patented “Jack” performance, meaning that he makes Costello seem a little crazier than he should be, although it works in the end to suggest the frayed edges of his gang. Costello’s number one, a bearded psycho named Mr. French (Ray Winstone), forces tensions even closer to the edge.
If the film has a weakness, it is in the subplot involving Sullivan’s girlfriend, a police psychiatrist named Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). She unwittingly becomes involved with both Sullivan and Costigan, unaware that they are both moles pretending to be something other than what they are. Madolyn is positioned between these opposing characters, the unseen lynchpin to the entire narrative, yet she never feels like an organic part of the story. Her character seems woefully underdeveloped; she is reduced to constantly reacting to Damon and DiCaprio, never acting in her own right. Her scenes seem stitched into the otherwise testosterone-heavy goings-on, even when she plays a crucial role in the final act that gives the story a sudden moral weight.
Even with that weakness, though, The Departed is an absorbing thriller that grips you from the opening images of Nicholson walking in darkness to the opening strains of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” rolling languidly on the soundtrack, to the gory succession of shockingly unexpected killings that bring things to a close. In between Scorsese pours on the operatic mayhem, introspective intrigue, and masculine jostling for authority laced with Catholic overtones about guilt, honor, and father-son bonds. This is crime melodrama as only Scorsese can deliver it, even if we sense in the edges of the frame that he’s subtly laughing at the over-ripeness of it all. “I don’t want to be a product of my environment,” Nicholson’s character tells us near the beginning of the film. “I want my environment to be a product of me”--words that may as well have come from Scorsese’s own mouth.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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