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CLASSICS: The Departed (2006)

February 22, 2010

The Departed (2006)

 (originally posted: February 18, 2007)
R for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material.
2 hrs. 30 min.
written by: William Monahan (from the 2002 screenplay by Siu Fai Mak & Felix Chong)
produced by: Graham King, Brad Pitt, & Martin Scorsese
directed by: Martin Scorsese
U.S. release date: October 6, 2006
In 2002’s Hong Kong cult classic film “Infernal Affairs” a dizzying and captivating story was told. The police force and the criminal underground had moles in each other’s operations at the exact same time. They each knew the infiltrator was there, but not who it was. No information could be trusted, and every move either side made could possibly be detected to their enemy. The filmmakers used a metaphor that the undercover operators were no longer amongst the living, that they had surrendered their identity and entered a netherworld of deception. The film would go on to gain cult status as a classic and although I have not seen it, the story is still intriguing to me.
Martin Scorsese has remade that film and called it, “The Departed”. While the dense storytelling is intact, Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”) have beefed up the story, making its characters more vivid and using the colorful world of Boston organized crime as its backdrop. In typical Scorsese fashion there are few characters in this film to truly root for cuz despite whatever good deeds they achieve the weight of their sins pulls them down to a place they can never really receive redemption. The two main characters are entwined in an identity crisis that is twisted in a labyrinth of deceit. Only a master storyteller like Scorsese could tell such a dense story while cultivating some amazing performances.

The film begins “some time ago” in South Boston, where Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) takes in a young Colin Sullivan under his wing with the intention that he eventually be a mole for his crew one day. Time passes and Sullivan (Matt Damon) is in training for the Massachusetts State Police. His classmates include Barrigan (James Badge Dale), Brown (Anthony Anderson) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio). Upon joining the State Police, Sullivan begins leaking information for Costello. Meanwhile, the good cop/bad cop undercover team of Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) assign Costigan (whose family has a checkered past) to commit assault, go to prison, and then begin selling drugs with his cousin to get noticed by Costello for the purpose of obtaining information. They want Billy to use his shady pedigree to infiltrate his crew. Only they will know of his true mission; to everyone else, he’ll be a criminal.

Of course, what they don’t yet know is that Costello has his own man inside the police department. Sullivan has worked his way up to major criminal investigations and is in the department adjacent to Queenan’s, working with Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) in above-ground operations. He is as close as he can be to any inside information Costello needs. Sullivan begins a romantic relationship with criminal psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), who counsels Boston’s finest. Costigan, meanwhile, is committing felonies with Costello’s right-hand man, Mr. French (Ray Winstone) and is obtaining information in the process. Soon, Sullivan is heading up his own special unit and throwing the police off of Costello’s tail. That is, until it gets too hot, and Costello demands he find out who the double agent is.

“The Departed” is superbly edited by longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker in such a way that the story jumps around in time and space effortlessly. One minute you are with Billy being berated by his superiors, the next you are in the hospital with his dying mother. We are shown a step being taken by the cops to capture Costello, and then we are with the bad guys as they veer off course to evade their pursuers. No one can be trusted except for the backstabbers. We know where Billy and Colin stand, but we’re never quite sure about the others. Is Ellerby on the take? Dignam? Are there other undercover cops in Costello’s organization? The camera whips around, swinging back and forth between people speaking, and Scorsese has fun with jump cuts, sound cues, text-messaging, and sometimes even stopping songs in mid-note to shock the viewer out of one mood and into another. Time is so disjointed that continuity just doesn’t matter. The viewer, like the characters, are supposed to be on shaky ground.

Among the few times the film settles down is when Billy goes to see police psychiatrist Madolyn for counsel. Though he starts off by being contentious with her, when Billy is around Madolyn, it is the one time he can be himself, whoever that is.  He’s lied so much about his identity he can’t even discern the truth anymore.  She stresses the need to have an “even keel,” and that’s exactly what she gives him as the stress of the double life starts to take its toll on him. Of course, for a story this curvy, Madolyn provides an added twist: she’s just so happens to be Colin’s girlfriend.

Scorsese takes his time when the scenes get tense and characters are facing off mentally. In those scenes, he uses framing to keep us from getting too comfortable. When Costello is trying to see if Billy is the rat and wants to break him, his hands remain out of sight. He drops something under the table, we hear it hit the ground, and we see Costello bend and pick it up, but Scorsese withholds the object’s identity until we can barely stand it any longer. Nicholson is clearly having fun with this and sure he’s playing “Jack” but he is actually acting and not just phoning it in. I don’t see how he could in a script this rich. He gives Costello the similar larger-than-life mood swings that Daniel Day-Lewis’ did as Butcher Bill in Scorcese’s “Gangs of New York”. Though it might initially appear that Nicholson is giving it too much, the farther he goes, the more it becomes clear it’s by design. No one knows if his merry prankster routine is real or if he’s going crazy, and it keeps those around him on their toes the way Scorsese is keeping his audience on theirs. It’s the director and actor teaming up to prank all of us.

In the same ways “Gangs of New York” was Shakespearean drama, so does “The Departed” build to an operatic crescendo of violence. The results aren’t pretty, but in a Scorsese film, the violence never is. There is no one left unaffected by the bloodshed in this film. The bad guys are really bad, and the good guys aren’t so great either. Political correctness is out the window, these guys are all down in the dirt and grime and in a sense, they are all lost souls, dead to any world that deals in niceties. When things get this filthy (like their language) there is only the option of dying for real, spilling blood or having your own spilled. The two men who are playing at being something else are forced to ask themselves: who they truly are, if they can ever go back, and is the price worth it? When you’ve given up life, can you return home and to what home are you returning to?

Damon and DiCaprio have turned in two fantastic performances in this film. They play characters lost in a moral fog, constantly looking over their shoulder and searching for a way out. It’s a deadly business where the lines are so blurred, it’s impossible to tell which side is which any longer, keeping everyone guessing right up to the very end–a controversial finale worthy of the lengthy build-up. Like their other excellent performances in “The Good Shepherd” and “Blood Diamond these two actors continue to make some calculatingly wise choices in the roles they accept. As good as those two were I can see why Wahlberg is nominated for Best Supporting Actor. His character’s acerbic and humorous tone is the only one that brings levity and you can tell that the actor was given free reign in order to bring some kinda balance in tone.
If Scorcese doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Director of 2006, I’ll understand. “The Departed” is surely not a masterpiece like “Raging Bull.” Still, it is what he does best: a morality play in the world of dangerous, violent men. From “Mean Streets” to “Goodfellas” and on, those stories form the spine for most of his classic pictures. This film is right in line with the best of them. So, if he does win, it will be deserved, I suppose.  A part of me will be feeling that he’s winning cuz he hasn’t won one yet. It’s just too bad it won’t be for his best work. He is, after all an excellent storyteller.

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CLASSICS is a Keeping It Reel feature that sheds light on past and present films which are considering “classics” by Paul and David. Some are award-winners while others could be seldom seen films that demand your attention.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Francesca Carboni Perry permalink
    February 23, 2010 8:13 am

    When I first saw The Departed I felt vaguely unsatisfied, as I did with Gangs of New York, but it was precisely this dissatisfaction that sent me out to buy the DVD and give it some quality time ( same with Gangs). It really is an amazing film. Yes it has that cold dense intensity to it that can be disconcerting on first viewing but its lack of intimacy or sympathy is in the end what makes it so powerful.Scorcese really knows his actors – everyone in this movie, perhaps lifted to their best by each other, gives a stellar performance. I’ve long thought that DiCaprio has had to work so hard to shake off the shadow of Titanic and his pretty boy idol image – he is one of, if not the best actors of his generation. Everything he touches is transformed into truth. The same with Matt Damon. And I agree about Mark Wahlberg – his performance in this was astounding, one of the highlights of the film.

    I was also thinking about another Scorcese film that didn’t initially strike me – The Age of Innocence- and had to go to Imdb because I couldn’t in that moment remember the exact title. Just look at the body of work Scorcese is responsible for – some of the greatest films ever made. And on a lighter note, his mum’s cameo in Casino is priceless, priceless!

  2. Francesca Carboni Perry permalink
    February 23, 2010 8:13 am

    Oh and I spelt Scorsese wrong all the way through – speaking Italian I should have spotted that, sorry guys!

  3. Matthew Gramith permalink
    February 25, 2010 10:58 am

    For too long a time I considered Martin Scorsese to be a good but massively over-rated director. His movies were well-made, but I often felt that they glorified the malevolent spirit. He and his films seemed caught up in an old-world, particularly Catholic, mentality. (By Catholic, I don’t mean the benefits, virtues, or otherwise transcending attributes the religion can bring about in a person, but more like the reason the religion exists in the first place – the “sin”.) In my younger years I was of the impression that all individual transformation was…well…individual – something very personal and subjective. Now, having gained some objectivity, I understand that what seems like individual problems are actually often systematic and institutional. The cure (or redemption), like the problem (or sin) is actually both individual and societal. I came to realize that Scorsese is using these smaller stories, in part, to make a statement about our society at large, and how our society and it’s institutions are the cause of many of our problems. So while it may be that the cure for one’s individual sinful propensity lies partly in bringing love into one’s life, the first step towards the cure on a societal level is exposing the corruption within it. Scorsese uses film as parables to show us how rampant, though often hidden, corruption is within our society. Jim Broadbent’s character in GANGS OF NEW YORK is there to drive that point home.
    In THE AVIATOR it’s Alan Alda. In THE DEPARTED…well, that last shot says it all.

    • February 25, 2010 11:04 am

      If you haven’t yet, you need to see “Shutter Island” quickly!

  4. Matthew Gramith permalink
    February 25, 2010 12:15 pm

    I know, I know, but I’m out in the boonies and it hasn’t come to our one local theatre! I definitely want to see it though despite some of the mixed reviews I’m coming across.


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