LIES. BETRAYAL. SACRIFICE. HOW FAR WILL YOU TAKE IT?
When I went to see this movie with a friend the other night, his expectations were not too high. Martin Scorsese had, in his mind, not made a truly great film since Casino (1995). As the closing credits rolled and we left the theater, my friend had a big smile on his face. Scorsese had just done right by him again.
As for me, I’m just in awe of how he can deliver a third consecutive near-masterpiece in just a few years and make it look easy. Any rookie film director who plans on making this kind of entertainment should know they have plenty to learn from this 65-year-old veteran and his 67-year-old editor. What a team, such energy they pour into their films! I actually lost sleep the night after watching this film, that’s how excited I was. The Departed may be an old-fashioned gangster movie, but it’s also a remake of a celebrated Hong Kong thriller, Infernal Affairs (2002), whose original script has been expanded by William Monahan into something even more gripping.
Targeting a ruthless mob boss
The film is set in South Boston and depicts the constant war going on between gangsters and law enforcement officials. The prime target for the cops is Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a ruthless mob boss. What he doesn’t know (but suspects) is that a special division within the Boston police has managed to put a spy in his midst; only two other cops know his identity. And what the police don’t know (but suspect) is that Costello has planted a rat in their midst. The game began years ago. Fresh out of the academy, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) was talked into infiltrating Costello’s syndicate, served time in prison to build the “right” credentials, and then fought his way into Costello’s inner circle. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) virtually grew up with Costello as a father figure and enrolled in the academy without anyone knowing about his mob ties, and now he’s becoming one of the most trusted cops on Costello’s trail. How long can both men go on without being exposed and killed?
Nicholson commands every scene he’s in
Scorsese’s finest film since GoodFellas (1990) is expertly paced and the emotions we invest in the characters are effectively built by the writer and the A list cast. It’s hard to talk about The Departed and not make it about these actors. Mark Wahlberg, who received an Oscar nomination, does a fine job with his pit bull-like detective, and Alec Baldwin is very amusing as Sullivan’s colorful boss. Martin Sheen is a perfect father figure and what happens to his character is heartbreaking (the movie came out shortly after the end of The West Wing, so we should agree this is no way to treat an ex-president…).
Nicholson (whose character was inspired by legendary Boston mobster Whitey Bulger) commands every scene he’s in without overdoing it; even a scene where he’s wearing a strap-on dildo (his own idea) is something he gets away with. His Costello is a sloppy but fear-inspiring gangster who in the end turns out to be anything but as loyal as some of his own crew.
DiCaprio and Damon show, as they have on several occasions lately, that they are serious about growing as actors. They have complex characters. Costigan is under constant pressure; the sheer length of his assignment (he’s been undercover for years) as well as the horrible crimes he’s forced to commit as one of Costello’s thugs haunt him and has got him hooked on pills. Sullivan, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have much of a conscience, but he’s not a happy human being. He’s like a machine who chooses never to think about his feelings. He has a gorgeous girlfriend, but there are signs that his real desires are in fact kept hidden under a lid.
Everyone works hard on their Boston accents and the streets are indeed very mean; this is a bloody and foul-mouthed thriller, emotionally amplified by the filmmakers’ savvy use of David Gilmour and Roger Waters’s “Comfortably Numb”. Scorsese has many talents, but as my friend said the other night, this is what he does best.
The Departed 2006-U.S. 151 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Brad Grey, Graham King, Brad Pitt, Martin Scorsese. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay: William Monahan. Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Billy Costigan), Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan), Jack Nicholson (Frank Costello), Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone… Alec Baldwin.
Trivia: Brad Pitt and Mel Gibson were reportedly considered for parts in the film.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing. Golden Globe: Best Director.
Quote: “Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this – no one gives it to you. You have to take it.” (Nicholson on the success of the Irish)
Last word: “I felt comfortable, certainly, with the street scenes with guys in the street and guys in bars and that sort of thing, and even more comfortable with the doctor scenes. But with the police scenes, I did feel a little uncomfortable with the way that played out. I mean, Mark Wahlberg’s attitude was very clear. Alec Baldwin picked up on it beautifully and counterbalanced it. It was almost like an Abbott and Costello routine between Wahlberg and Baldwin. I didn’t have to say anything to them. They just did it.” (Scorsese, About.com)