Few films are sufficient in themselves to make me think that I should perhaps go back and rethink a filmmaker’s entire oeuvre, but Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is one of those few. I’ve never doubted Scorsese’s importance as a major filmmaker of the modern era, but, The Gangs of New York (2002) to one side, I’ve simply never warmed to his work — mostly due to his choice of subject matter. And yet The Departed is what might be termed “typical” Scorsese subject matter — something that makes me think that either I’ve been missing the point of his films, or that I simply wasn’t ready for them when I saw them.
In any case, The Departed is a wholly remarkable work — one that is considerably deeper and certainly more complex than its crime thriller status might imply. Oh, it works on that level. A reworking of a Hong Kong-gangster thriller, Infernal Affairs (2002), it’s a seemingly effortless exercise in the genre, one that reaches mythic (if not epic) proportions on a grandly operatic scale. (Indeed, by the end of the film, the screen has been littered with more corpses than even the most excessive opera.) But there’s more to it than the — admittedly brilliant — mechanics of its richly detailed story. There’s a constant undercurrent of the same kind of conflicted Catholicism that spawned Scorsese’s misbegotten The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). The entire film is awash in questions of sin, retribution, guilt and redemption — probably more than I realize on a single viewing, because it is a remarkably layered work in this regard.
How layered is it? For one showpiece example, there’s a scene where the action is accompanied by both the climactic scene of John Ford’s The Informer (1935) playing on a TV and the Badfinger song “Baby Blue” on the soundtrack. You have a thug receiving his comeuppance, while the dying Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) in The Informer is rejoicing that the mother of the man whose death he caused by informing on him has forgiven him (“Frankie, your mother forgives me!”), and both are accompanied by Pete Ham singing, “Guess I got what I deserved” in the background. And Scorsese even takes it a step further, cutting from the crucifixion image of Gypo with arms outstretched to a picture of Christ in the same pose, with that picture reappearing on a wall in a soon to be sacrificed police official’s house, thereby blurring the line between good guys and bad guys even more. With this kind of complexity at work, there’s just no way that everything about The Departed is going to be absorbed in one sitting.
However, it isn’t necessary to “get” every level of the film in order to follow it. Scorsese is far too savvy as an entertaining filmmaker for that, but those other levels are there — something that resonates through the film even when they aren’t consciously understood. The aforementioned scene, the use of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (significantly, from their Let It Bleed album), the reference to the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the evocation of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), the nod to the “X” imagery from Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), etc. — these give the film its tone, its feeling, its weightiness quite apart from their more overt symbolic value.
Taken on its simplest level, The Departed is a basic — albeit richly detailed — cops and robbers story. It centers on the efforts of the police to take down crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) by any means necessary, including the use of a deep undercover mole, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), in Costello’s organization. But the film goes further — presenting the world of the gangster and the world of the police as mirror images of each other. If the police have an undercover agent in Costello’s organization, it follows that Costello has one, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), in with the police.
The relationships between characters on both sides of the game are themselves remarkably complex in how they intertwine with one another. Sullivan and Costigan are linked not only by their respective positions that cause them to betray their respective organizations, but they also fall in love with the same woman, police psychiatrist Madolyn (Vera Farmiga, Running Scared), and unbeknownst to each other share her attentions for a time. Costello and special investigator Oliver Queenen (Martin Sheen) also cross-reference each other — both professionally and as father figures to their respective key agents. Each also has a right-hand man who mirrors the other: French (Ray Winstone) in Costello’s case and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) in Queenen’s. However, temperamentally, French has more in common with Queenen and Dignam more in common with Costello, a factor that enriches the film at every turn.
At the same time, Scorsese hands us what easily passes muster as pure Hollywood entertainment, especially when he turns the film over to Nicholson in a role that allows the actor to go from subdued menace into full-fledged Mephistopheles Jack. Unlike many of Nicholson’s performances, though, this one works because the morphing into his standard scenery-chewing mode fits the descent of the character into ever-growing dementia. By the time Costello wanders into a public setting completely unconcerned that he’s covered in blood up to his elbows, there’s simply no other way to play the man. It’s astonishing how effective Nicholson can be when his stock bag of tricks are put to good use.
The entire cast, for that matter, is exemplary. DiCaprio and Damon have never been so good, and Mark Wahlberg turns an essentially supporting role into a show-stopping turn. Brutally funny — and just downright brutal — The Departed is nothing short of cinematic fireworks, only these fireworks linger in the mind long after the explosions. Rated R for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke