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Review: “The Departed”

Director: Martin Scorsese
Produced by: Brad Pitt, Brad Grey, Graham King
Written by: William Monahan (screenplay), Felix Chong & Alan Mak (story)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson
Music by: Howard Shore
Remake of: 無間道 (Infernal Affairs, 2002)
Year: 2006


Can a film that tries to be a serious drama simultaneously be a popcorn film? I believe it can. The Departed certainly is. In fact, I was actually inspired to throw a bag in the microwave and toss in some Parmesan cheese for good measure while watching this remake of the Chinese gangster film, Infernal Affairs. Martin Scorsese, winning with this film what was somehow his first Oscar for Best Director, has crafted what is essentially an action film where all the action takes place in the flurry of words rather than bullets.

Starring a huge cast of major, well-known actors, The Departed is a tightly woven, tightly wound crime thriller about two men on opposing sides of the law infiltrating the worlds of the other, without either one of them knowing the others’ identity. The script urges the actors into pitching rapid fire dialogue as if their mouths were machine guns; rarely in the film is anyone not talking, and if they aren’t you can be sure that Scorsese has made sure to throw in a classic rock song or two. The film doesn’t even slow down to give us time references, but we know that it takes place over an indeterminate, long span of time thanks to clues left in the script — they’re there if you can pick them up, I promise!

This rapid fire might turn off some viewers, but I wouldn’t call this a flaw of the film. At least not an inherent one. I’m not entirely sure that I caught everything, myself, but what you do pick up on your initial viewing (yes, this was my first viewing and, yes, I realize that I’m behind) still makes for rock solid character drama about men (specifically Irish Bostonians who talk as if they have no regard for race, gender, or creed), their senses of honor and loyalties, and two men facing the similar perils and duties of their respective careers, despite being on quite opposite sites of the law. I am certain that multiple viewings will bring more to light.

The Departed has Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon play a two police characters who put interesting spin on the Good Cop, Bad Cop routine. Damon plays Colin Sullivan, a man pretty much raised to fill in his role as crime lord Frank Costello’s (Jack Nicholson) inside man in the police department. DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, who has come out of a family with mob ties and is now attempting to make a better name for himself as a police officer. These familial ties make him the perfect choice to become the special forces’ mole inside Costello’s gang, and so Costigan is thrown back into the world of crime with the law’s paradoxical permission.

A similar dichotomy can be seen between Sullivan and Costigan’s two father figures, Frank Costello and Capt. Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen). Both men rely upon and lend paternal support to their respective informants in very different ways, and yet they are also unknowingly fostering the men who were sent in to keeping tabs on them. While the slick, unwincing Sullivan has had his ethics and loyalties to the department and anyone who gets in his way (even his fellow gangsters) pretty much trained out of him, Costigan finds it harder and harder to keep on the right side of the law and, above all, morality. Though the police won’t necessarily hold him accountable for the crimes he commits in his role, it is uncertain to Costigan whether similar forgiveness will be had for his soul.

The bottleneck in this dichotomy is the police psychologist Sullivan and Costigan both romance, Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga). Her sessions with Sullivan look more like an intimate conversation while out at the bar, with Sullivan using his natural charms on her. Her sessions with Costigan, on the other hand, resemble a confessional more than anything. Madden is torn between the two men, the apparent happiness she gets from Sullivan and the emotional vulnerability that seems to appeal to her need to help those who need it from Costigan. Whichever affection is truer than the other is left up in the air until perhaps the end.

And what a crazy end it is. By the time we get within minutes of the film ending, several characters who have had a significant presence throughout the film have already shockingly been killed off, and yet more will. The film is filled with double crosses, ambiguous allegiances, and, yes, rats in unexpected, untelegraphed places. The revelations, despite the film’s 2 1/2 hour run time, come at you so fast, you’ll almost want to rewind to see what you’ve missed.

Those who hate ambiguity will likely be unsatisfied, which is fair enough I guess, but  know that, after a few days of casual research and letting it simmer in my mind, I think the ending is quite simple, logical, and appropriate for the tone of the film. Like most popcorn films, The Departed doesn’t necessarily shatter the mold of gangster films, but what it does deliver is a gripping, superbly overacted, and stylishly executed morality play that is sure to shock and entertain.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5

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