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.
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.
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.
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.