In the early months of 2007 Martin Scorsese’s name was called, winning for the first time in his storied career the Academy Award for Best Director. The film that he won for, The Departed, is an epic and violent saga involving the state police in Boston and the Irish gang they pursue throughout the city.
On each side there is an undercover informant working for the other team. Both Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin (Matt Damon) work their way through the state police academy, working through drills and training classes. Both graduate from the academy with Colin being able to move his way up to Staff Sergeant in a very short amount of time. He’s greatly aided by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) who gives him leads on crimes to solve with planted evidence and who has been nothing less than a Father to Colin since he was young. Colin constantly provides inside information to Frank so he’s able to avoid surveillance, and knows what the movements of the Police are, always a step ahead.
Billy’s interest in joining the State Police is questioned prior to his starting, and ends up being grilled by two Police supervisors who lead the undercover unit. Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlburg) bring to light Billy’s connection to some notable criminal figures in South Boston. This is one of the most verbally cutting scenes in the film, Dignam bluntly cutting to the point and Billy unwilling to take his provocations at his family and his past. While they don’t see the makeup of a plains cloth Police Officer they see his potential as an undercover mole, a role he perfected as a teenager in South Boston when he spent time with his Father on the weekends. This is how The Departed begins, following these two infiltrators as they try to expose the other.
The most impressive aspect of The Departed is the incredibly sustained plot and storytelling combined with the immense detail of the narrative. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a wonderfully vulnerable performance as Billy who is on the verge of panic attacks because of his time undercover, spending days with a group of mass murderers. He seeks help from a shrink named Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) who also happens to be the woman Colin is dating. The line gets muddled who we’re seeing when he sits with Madolyn in that appointment, he has to bullshit his past which isn’t real, she becomes just another person he has to manipulate to survive. After bursting out when not getting some Valium, Madolyn tracks down Billy outside her offices and gives him a script for medication. He then surprises her by asking her out for Coffee. This begins a love triangle that takes us to the very end of the film, and it seems to contradict what Madolyn wants, a life with Colin.
Colin tells Madolyn about getting out of the Police force, to go to law school for a change of career. He talks about things not working out between them and relays that he’s ok with something being wrong for the rest of his life because of his Irish background. A nice cultural, generational, blue collar attitude ever present in the city of Boston. This scene shows the weight of what it means to be Irish, the identity of the struggle, the climb, and self doubt present in the mind of a low class worker who’s made something of himself.
The amount of detail enhancing and capturing the atmosphere and culture of Boston throughout The Departed is wonderful. The class differences between shanty Irish and Lace Curtain Irish is a nice touch, as is the commitment to real Boston accents to give as much color to the dialogue as possible. The Departed also might be Scorsese’s most violent film, with some really disturbing on-screen deaths. Almost all accompanied by a slowly strung Spanish guitar playing over the sounds of a body hitting the ground. Mr. French (Ray Winstone), the right hand of Costello and frequent partner of Billy’s on muscle jobs, intimidates and influences every scene that he’s in. A blunt ferocity is constantly apparent and his presence on screen is so palpable and full of weight. Most of the film’s disturbing and menacing violent scenes involve Mr. French in the role of Irish mob enforcer.
Jack Nicholson’s performance is one that’s dynamic, comic, charismatic, and bewildering as the murderous and conniving Mob Boss Frank Costello. There are moments when it does seem to be Jack playing it up or slightly over the top especially when raising his voice or appearing deranged. But it’s always controlled within the performance of Costello, a man who’s been on top for years drunk on his power and drugs. He doesn’t blink an eye at eliminating competition, taunting the local Priests about their moral failings, and openly flaunting law enforcement. He grows to trust Billy more than Colin, despite knowing him for over twenty years. And in this way Billy succeeds in infiltrating the Costello gang by presenting a more trustworthy and believable projection than who Colin really is. He says as much in the phone call at the end of the film, letting Colin know that Costello really ended up trusting him with everything.
It’s an amazing journey the film takes us on with DiCaprio’s Costigan going through a rollercoaster ride of close calls and near deadly experiences. There are open questions that aren’t answered and the film only offers possibilities. Like Delahunt who worked as muscle for the Costello gang, who died of a gunshot wound after a gun fight with the Cops after the death of Captain Queenan. He calls Billy over and reveals to him that he knows he’s the informer amongst them, and to ask him why he didn’t tell anybody. It’s a haunting moment and just a second later he succumbs to the gunshot wound and dies. It’s reported the next day after the Police find his body that Timothy Delahunt was an undercover Police Officer with the city of Boston. Costello offers up that the news is simply reporting this so that he won’t look for the informer among them. We never know whether Delahunt was an undercover cop, it would explain why he didn’t say anything but the fact that we don’t know is haunting.
There is such an incredible amount of action and detail intertwined into the movie that it’s hard to cover it all. What I can say is that it’s an incredible crime narrative that drives the theme of identity into it’s very core with a violent intensity that solidifies Scorsese’s legacy as a great filmmaker. The performances carry such immediacy they require your attention, they aren’t simply asking for it. Dialogue that is so sharp and cutting, a gritty world that requires verbal niceties to be thrown aside in lieu of a direct answer. The Departed is a Shakespearean tragedy in which almost everyone dies, no one can be trusted, and the lives of many are destroyed. I remember the first time watching it how struck I was with how dark I felt the film was, and while that’s receded through the twelve viewings, it still strikes with it’s impact. A true gut punch of a film.