CLASSICS: The Departed (2006)
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.
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?
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.