A great piece of cinema for each decade of active work they say of Martin Scorsese. He delivered Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and he checked the 2000’s section of the GOAT tome of film with The Departed. One could argue The Wolf of Wall Street deserves heralding as a great film for the 2010’s but that’s a row for later.
Written by William Monahan, The Departed is a remake of the compact 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller, Internal Affairs, which was much more subtle in its handling of character, plot, and violence among other things. Scorsese is more generous here and serves an overly enjoyable and somewhat deranged crime flick with terrific ensemble performances and Matthew Vaughn-esque punctuations of violence.
There is an interesting dynamic to identity Scorsese works with here; so much so I wondered why David Cronenberg wasn’t helming this film. At its crux, this film is a tale of two Irish-Boston bred guys on opposite sides of the law in more ways than one. On one hand we have Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan, protégé to south Boston’s biggest gangster and sociopath, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) who sponsors him through the police academy and on his way to becoming the gangsters own inside man on the police force. On the other hand, we have Leonardo DiCaprio as William Costigan, a man with deep family roots in South Boston crime but a man also trying to walk the straight and narrow with a career in the police force. Right after the police academy, he is recruited by senior police intelligence officers who want him to play on his family’s crime connection and go into deep cover in Costello’s gang – “do you want to be a cop or do you want to appear to be a cop” he is asked. He chooses the former whilst Sullivan, we come to realise, lives the latter. The film goes on to play out dynamic of Costigan having to be the best possible gangster to be the best possible cop and Sullivan being a stand out policeman to be well placed to keep his gangster buddies a step ahead of the game.
Damon and DiCaprio’s characters are impressively contrasted here with Sullivan coming off as smooth and annoyingly entitled whilst Costigan looks unhinged, rugged and beaten like a Vietnam vet. Sullivan loves appearing to be a cop and revels in the promotions and acclaim thrown his way but Costigan is weighed down the paranoia and craziness around him as he gets deeper and deeper into Costello’s circle.
Monahan creates such amusing characters in his screenplay and gives them the quotable lines to match. This is a stellar ensemble cast we are watching and you get the sense our director loosened the leash for most them at different points in this film allowing them to just let go to darkly hilarious effect. Mark Whalberg leads the supporting ensemble with an enjoyably snide and vulgar turn as Sgt Dignam which scored him an Oscar nomination. But on the point of leashes and restraint, Jack Nicholson shows up with the dial turned up to 11. If you ever wondered what a pensioner Joker looked like just watch Nicholson’s deranged performance here as he channels the extremes, menace and intensity of some of his past roles. I try to picture any actor who could have successfully tackled this role but come up empty – De Niro? Pacino? Walken? Maybe Walken turns it up as much as old man Nicholson does but the allure of his performance comes with the awareness of his past roles which add to Frank Costello in a quasi-meta-textual way. Bizarre details prop up when watching him; the droopy eyes, the definite Joker grins, that creepy rat impression that marks the last great and outrageous performance of his illustrious career – hopefully not his last though but we’ll see.
Some time is spent wondering why this 70-year-old crime boss spends so much time on the front line overseeing shady night time exchanges and testing coke at drop points. The answer appears to be a simple one, he just loves it. “I haven’t needed the money since I took Archie’s milk money in the third grade… I don’t need pussy anymore either – but I like it”.
As great as the performances are and as slick as Monahan’s script is, this crime drama still the stamp and fluent rock star pizzazz of Martin Scorsese. Early in the film, we see the allure to the crime world for a young Colin Sullivan as he watches the swagger of Frank Costello mirroring the way a certain Henry Hill watched wise guys from his window in New York. That idolizing of the crime world is a by-product of our director’s childhood and something he has always identified with looking at the way it has permeated some of his films in one way or the other. The ultimate Scorsese calling card, however, is fully encapsulated well into the film evoking Taxi Driver. The sequence begins in a porn theatre with the tense potential of a pivotal encounter between our two “rats” as Costigan unknowingly tails Sullivan through the streets of night-time Boston which resembles Travis Bickle’s vision of the hellish New York with the smoke rising from the street, the color and terrific DP work with mixes of saturated red and blue and then there’s the manically active camera Scorsese employs as we navigate the busy Boston streets. On a side note, if you squint your eyes there are times DiCaprio’s Costigan actually begins to look like Travis Bickle.
Scorsese scored an Oscar for his work here and Al Pacino and he probably laughs about it. The film at times feels infused with the best bits and smoothness from his past classics (and indeed Jack Nicholson’s) attacking audiences on many levels thoroughly gripping most and definitely entertaining all.