The Departed

The Departed (2006)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Written by: William Monahan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen


This will likely be an unpopular opinion, but The Departed is lesser Scorsese. At the time of its release, the film was seen as a return to form for the auteur, who had been working away from the crime genre for the most part, spending much of the late 1990s and early 2000s making historical epics and biopics. The film won four Academy Awards, including a Best Director award, Scorsese’s first, and a Best Picture award. At the time of its release, I was as on board as anyone else with the opinion that The Departed is, in fact, a great movie, and that it was justified in being the film that finally brought home a much coveted Oscar for the master, Scorsese. I saw the film at least twice in the theater, and purchased it on DVD as soon as it was released. In the fall of 2006 and into 2007, The Departed was my favorite film. It distilled Scorsese’s directorial trademarks into easily identifiable cues, it featured a talented and broad cast, and it certainly did feel like a return to form for the filmmaker who had been making much less intense, more personal projects. However, with over ten years to reflect back on the film, not only does The Departed feel somewhat less essential than it did back then, it doesn’t even strike me as a particularly good film. I don’t hate The Departed, but the film has a myriad of problems that keep it from being a regular in my viewing rotation, despite my initial fondness for it upon its release.

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An adaptation of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, The Departed is an elaborate game of cat and mouse, with both the police and the criminals inserting moles into each other’s organizations. The film shows us that Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson) has been grooming Colin Sullivan (Damon) since childhood to infiltrate the Massachusetts State Police as a mole. Eventually Sullivan works his way into the Special Investigations Unit, specifically tasked with bringing down Costello and his crime syndicate. At the same time, the SIU has groomed their own mole, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), a cadet in the state police academy, to go undercover inside the Costello organization to aid in their investigation. The two men proceed down parallel paths of deceit and double cross until they eventually become aware of the existence of the other. Sullivan and Costigan attempt to find out each other’s identity, while also maintaining the tenuous balance required to protect their own cover. Eventually, the ruse begins to unravel as other members of Costello’s crew are revealed to be informants, and Costello himself admits to being an FBI informant for years. The layers of deceit are thick, and, ultimately, neither Costigan nor Sullivan is able to reconcile his duplicitous nature.

That seems like an overly simple plot summary for a film that features as many plot twists and turns as The Departed, but I feel that much of the film’s complexity is actually facile. The Departed features many of the hallmarks of Scorsese’s cinematic output, but it feels more like a paint-by-numbers than a fully fleshed out project. The film utilizes Scorsese’s trademark soundtracking, and his memorable insertion of classic rock songs into key moments in the film, but for the first time, the trick feels gimmicky. It’s all style over substance, with its flashy patina masking the fact that its narrative is actually significantly less complex than it appears. While the film that Scorsese is adapting, Infernal Affairs, is a taught, grimy crime thriller, The Departed is an overly-serious, bloated piece of work. The film lacks the panache and the humor of Scorsese’s earlier crime films such as Goodfellas, and is a worse film for it. The Departed proceeds with an air of self-importance that it never really earns, providing solid entertainment, but striving through heavy-handed symbolism at a moralism that never really feels fleshed out. The film’s denouement attempts to bring all the pieces of its sprawling narrative back together, but it does so in a way that leaves me feeling unsatisfied. The characters find their resolutions too easily and conveniently, if not often too peacefully, with the film too readily insisting on a neat conclusion in a world that’s been established to exist in moral grey areas. Rather than untying the Gordian knot that its narrative has attempted to tie, The Departed’s final act opts to hack it to pieces with the blade of coincidence and deus ex machina. Its closing shot is almost inexcusably heavy-handed, spoon feeding the audience the symbolic import of its image.

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That isn’t to say that The Departed doesn’t have its redeeming qualities. It does have some elements of genuine intrigue. The film often harkens back to Scorsese’s explosively violent work of the 1990s, with Costigan in particular showing himself to be an able vehicle of violent retribution. The scenes in which he is easing into his role as a soldier in Costello’s organization are some of the film’s most interesting, because they leave a question as to how much of the violence is Costigan playing out a role and how much of it stem from his latent destructive urges. DiCaprio plays this role well, and this seems to be one of the first indications that he would go on to become more than just a teen heartthrob. His Costigan is paranoid, conflicted, and violent, attempting to stay one step ahead of both Costello and Sullivan, while maintaining his own sanity in the face of the pressures of living a double life. DiCaprio plays his role with an appropriately desperate edge, a manic energy pervading his performance that will become familiar in his performances over the next decade. He doesn’t reach the heights of performance that he did in his earlier pairing with Scorsese, The Aviator, but DiCaprio is one of the lone bright spots in the film from a performance standpoint. Perhaps DiCaprio stands out so much because his counterpart in the film, Damon, seems to be phoning in his performance. He doesn’t seem to bring any of the psychological or emotional complexity to his role that DiCaprio does, and he relies on his Boston accent to do much of the work in his performance. Damon is solid, but he doesn’t shine.

Nicholson is a disappointment, as well. Solidly into his hammy later career, Nicholson’s Costello is a stereotype of a gangster. He seethes cruelty and anger, but rarely steps outside of this emotional register. In a film where the arch criminal is revealed to be an FBI informant, Nicholson doesn’t bring any moral ambiguity or nuance to the character. It isn’t that the performance is poor, but with a character as dynamic as Costello, Nicholson should be able to do more. Costello seems more sleazy pervert than criminal mastermind, and his decision to become a rat doesn’t seem to wear on him psychologically in any way. He’s simply acting out of self-preservation, and any larger examination of the character’s psyche is left out. This kind of psychological short-shrifting is fine for a minor or even a supporting character, but when you’re trying to make the type of prestige film that The Departed badly wants to be, a bit more probing into the personal life and mind of one of your three principles is required. I’m ok with a performance strictly being for comedic effect or shock value, and I think that Mark Wahlberg’s bombastic Sgt. Dignam is exactly that and I love it, but you have to expect more character development from one of the three main characters in a prestige drama.

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I’m not totally certain when the bloom came off of the rose for me with The Departed. As I said, it’s a movie that I wholly enjoyed and sang the praises of for a full year after its release. Maybe it was after seeing Infernal Affairs a couple years after The Departed and realizing what a tight, well made thriller the original film is. Maybe it was simply that the lengthy interim between my last viewing of The Departed and this viewing for my post had cast the film in the positive light of nostalgia for me, although I don’t think so. I think that, truly, I always knew that The Departed wasn’t the great movie that it purports itself to be, but I got carried away in the newness of it because it really is a fun movie a lot of the time. I certainly have issues with the film, but it has some enthralling moments of action that break through and grab the viewer. The overall package doesn’t warrant the sort of high praise the film often receives, but there are fleeting instances of a great crime drama within The Departed. Unfortunately, they’re so buried in the artificially complex narrative twisting and turning that the film insists upon that they rarely get the chance to connect in a meaningful way.

About Schmidt

About Schmidt (2002)

Dir. Alexander Payne

Written by: Alexander Payne (from the novel by Louis Begley)

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney


About Schmidt feels like a forgotten movie. I rarely hear anyone mention it, and I know that it has been largely ignored by myself. I purchased this film on DVD sometime in 2003 from Blockbuster Video. At that time in my life, Blockbuster was a big source of DVDs for me. They would almost always have their used rental discs for sale at pretty good prices about a year after their release, due to the store’s policy of stocking heavily on new releases and then downsizing their stock once the movies got a little older. Myself and my best friend would go to the area stores and raid their used DVD bins, stocking up on 4 for $20 discs. Our logic was that since it was about $3 to rent a DVD for the night, if we could get a disc for $5 and watch it twice then we were getting a good deal. I’ve watched About Schmidt more than two times since purchasing it some 13 years ago, but not many. I remember enjoying the movie, but it never made a huge impression on me, however it has hung around in my DVD collection when I’ve lost or misplaced other, more cherished discs.

It isn’t so much that About Schmidt is a bad movie, it’s just that it’s a very bland one, and it hasn’t aged particularly well. The film begins with the retirement of Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) from his job at a Midwestern insurance firm. Already put off by the loss of his familiar work routines, Warren is thrown into a full three-quarter-life crisis after the death of his wife Helen (June Squibb) and his subsequent discovery of her decades-long affair with his best friend. Warren’s solution to his crisis is to set out in the RV that he and Helen purchased to spend their retirement together, and drive cross country from Nebraska to Colorado to attend the upcoming nuptials of his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis). Along the way, Warren begins to learn more about himself, and about the people around him, as he starts to accept and adjust to his new life.


Like the rest of Alexander Payne’s output, I feel About Schmidt is a fine piece of entertainment. It’s largely a light comedy, and it succeeds at hitting the beats it’s supposed to. The performances are solid across the board, with Nicholson and Kathy Bates receiving deserved Oscar nominations for their roles. However, my favorite performance was Dermot Mulroney as Randall, Jeannie’s ponytailed fiancée, who sells waterbeds, invests in pyramid schemes, and very obviously does not meet Warren’s approval. Randall is the film’s most obvious comic relief, but Mulroney never plays him as a total clown. Randall takes pride in his work, but he works to live rather than living to work. In this way, he provides a foil for the workaholic Warren, who sees Randall as a rube, unfit to wed his daughter. It’s telling that Warren made his living selling life insurance, a product that can’t be cashed in while the purchaser is still alive, versus the waterbeds that Randall sells, which are meant to provide comfort and enjoyment in the here and now. Halfway through the film, Randall approaches Warren with an opportunity to invest in what is “definitely not a pyramid scheme,” in an attempt to bolster his economic prospects in a changing economy, but also in an attempt to ingratiate himself to his future father in law, and to try to make an entry into the world of the upper middle class. Warren’s rejection of Randall is indicative of his classist attitude, as he repeatedly claims that Randall is “not good enough” to marry Jeannie, despite the obvious evidence that he makes Jeannie happy.


While Warren’s classist nature is revealed through his interactions with Randall, the film’s voice over narration often reveals its tendency towards White paternalism. Early in his retirement, Warren sees a commercial for Childreach, which leads him to sponsor a six year old boy in Tanzania named Ndugu. Throughout the film, Warren writes letters to Ndugu, which are narrated in voice over. Warren introduces himself to Ndugu as his new “foster father,” and proceeds to use his letters to Ndugu as a way to vent his frustrations and project his unfulfilled dreams onto the child. The letters are presented comically in the film, and they are often genuinely funny, but the content reveals Warren’s basic inability to understand or relate to cultures other than his own. The fact that Warren finishes off his first letter by writing that he’s sure Ndugu wants to “hurry down and cash that check and get [him]self something to eat,” is funny, but it also underlines a paternalism inherent in the attitudes of otherwise well-meaning do-gooders. I feel that this sort of well-meaning sentiment applies to the film as a whole. It’s funny, the acting is good, and it is largely enjoyable, but the point of view that it represents as the norm likely wasn’t relatable to most average Americans on its release, let alone now, when American society has become more diversified and stratified than ever.

As I mentioned, About Schmidt simply feels outdated today. The film was released in December of 2002, into a much different America than the one that I live in today. The idea of a gold watch retirement from a career after 50 years of service with one company seemed antiquated to me in 2003, and feels even more so watching the film again today. While the prospects for a retiree in the early part of the 21st century may have seemed bright, the reality for most American workers just 15 years later is that there may be little chance for a true retirement of any sort. The type of middle class prosperity that Warren Schmidt is meant to represent in this film is largely unachievable for most American workers in the year 2016. And while the film is dubious, or even downright pessimistic, about the happiness that can be found through a life dedicated to the achievement of material and monetary wealth, the relative comfort that a man in Warren Schmidt’s position has been able to enjoy, even at the expense of a more meaningful marriage or relationship with his daughter, must be preferable to an existence spent working overtime for a degrading wage simply to provide the bare necessities for your family.


The feeling that this film’s subject matter is distinctively out of step with the modern world is a problem that I’ve come to have with the films of Alexander Payne, in general. I have seen all of the films that he’s directed with the exception of his debut, Citizen Ruth, and they have always struck me as decent movies that leave little impression on me as a viewer. I have trouble relating to the Midwestern-ness of About Schmidt and Nebraska, and I also have trouble relating to the privilege and overbearing White-ness of Sideways and The Descendants. While I’ve enjoyed all of these movies at different times, and still think that they’re largely decent films with strong performances and are generally of high production quality, I can’t help but feel that they aren’t reflective of the face of America. As a viewer, I’m getting bored of the dominance of movies about White male elites, and I am hoping to see more representation of women, people of color, gays, and other marginalized groups in the films that get made. I’m hoping to see more films being made by people in these marginalized groups. There have been plenty of just fine movies made about the experiences of aging White men, and those movies will always continue to be made, but I hope that it isn’t at the expense of potentially great movies about characters who look less like the folks in Omaha.