The Departed (2006)
Written by William Monahan
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Once again, Scorsese takes a direct-for-hire gig from a studio. Unlike the previous films, this one plays to the filmmaker’s talents much better. It’s a crime story that, while set in Boston, definitely shares DNA with Goodfellas and Casino. However, it’s also a remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. I haven’t seen that original picture, so as much as I’d like to compare the two, we’ll have to discuss this one on its own terms. The Departed has been a movie maligned as a red flag picture by the myopic “anti-film bro” crowd. I always sympathize with a disdain for that type of male fan who always identifies with the characters you’re not supposed to cheer for. It’s a standard American misconception with narrative fiction that the protagonist is the “good guy” whom the audience is meant to support. Scorsese’s work continually presents evil men as his main characters, which does not endorse them. These types of bad people are often more interesting to examine in stressful situations, and they also go along with one of the director’s career-long themes: can a person this bad be redeemed?
Two men enter the Massachusetts state police at the same time. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) secures a spot in the Special Investigation Unit, making him an integral part of organized crime surveillance and stings. Colin has been groomed since childhood by boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and is spying for the Irish mob, feeding them intel on what the state knows about their activities. The other man is Billy Costigan (Leonard DiCaprio), who comes from a family with ties to the mob, which puts a red flag by his name. After being vetted, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) has Billy go undercover and use his late connected uncle’s reputation to work his way into the Family. Billy’s status is kept secret from everyone but Queenan and his right-hand man Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). Tension mounts, and Sullivan and Costigan become aware of someone in their respective roles but have no idea who the exact man inside each organization is.
There is a rich density to the story of The Departed, a filmed novel telling multiple parallel stories that are slowly being woven tighter and tighter together. It’s also a movie that refuses to lead us to the expected conclusion and delivers a finale that cuts straight through audience standards about heroes & villains and their ultimate fates. The focus on these characters in opposing orbits recalls Michael Mann’s phenomenal Heat, a film I would argue is better than The Departed if merely for the level of stylishness that Mann injects into his movies. Scorsese’s aesthetics are muted here, much more subtle. This period of work is marked by a sense of restraint when needed (yes, we will get to The Wolf of Wall Street soon). Scorsese is obviously playing with the image if you look at something like Casino or Bringing Out the Dead. In The Departed, he still uses the camera to tell a story but not so ostentatiously. Performances are given room to breathe and develop.
The ultimate revelation I think those film bros mentioned above don’t always understand or articulate clearly is that this movie is about a single institution that has convinced itself that it’s two distinct entities. The police and the mob aren’t opposing enemies but the same structure fighting against itself. Sullivan & Costigan are the human embodiment of that, two sides of the same coin, deathly loyal to some ideal but destroying themselves and what they believe they care about. They both end up in a relationship with the same woman, Dr. Madden (Vera Farmiga). There’s a strong implication that her pregnancy is Costigan’s, not Sullivan’s. There are other parallels, too: Queenan & Costello, Dignam & Frenchie (Ray Winstone). They play the same roles but on “opposite sides.”
Eventually, Costello becomes a father figure to both Sullivan & Costigan. But that is undermined by the fact he’s a rat to the FBI. Costello betrays the mob and turns on the state police by not becoming an informant to them, as you might expect. He breaks a cardinal rule by going outside the family of these Boston gangs, the Irish mob, and the state police. By doing that, he undoes everything for our characters; it’s the magic ingredient needed to collapse the whole damn mess. It comes with a cost, Costello’s life, but it is the action that brings the narrative to its conclusion. Without his decision to talk to the FBI, this gang war would just go on forever, and maybe it still does after the film concludes.
We also have the dynamic between Queenan and Dignam as another series of parallels. Old man/young guy. Soft-spoken/foul-mouthed. Good cop/bad cop. It’s telling that the “nice” cop Queenan is the one who gets taken out by the mob, and the “mean” cop Dignam makes the final kill of the movie. How is what Dignam did different than what any Irish mobster would have done if their crew members were taken out? Dignam is another soldier in another gang, except his gang exercises state-sponsored violence. His kills have a “justification” in our culture, while anything Costello or Sullivan do is meant to be seen as criminal.
Returning to some recent reviews, Serpico and Dirty Harry are parallels that examine how the police officer is juxtaposed with the criminal. In Dirty Harry, the film makes excuses and sets up strawmen for its criminal cop. Serpico argues that the cops are just as dirty if not worse than the people they arrest. Serpico believes that by working from the inside, he can “fix” policing. The Departed very calmly sets out evidence to argue against that. You cannot dismantle something from the inside that demands you operate on its terms, inevitably pushing you into criminality. If you don’t give in to the system, it will crush and spit you out. The final act of “good” in The Departed comes after the traditional hero gets taken out of the picture and a colleague acts “extrajudicially,” stepping outside the laws they would say are essential to defend.
The world of The Departed is just a series of double-crosses, an event that Scorsese asks us about. Is this how we see the world too? Are concepts like justice and crime all relative based on who is speaking about them? Costello sees the world as a place where you’ll never have solidarity; you can only look out for yourself. He seems to be proven right when we look at the fates of the other characters. Can you ever get rid of crime or just contain it? Will institutions that claim to be devoted to justice always end up riddled with criminals and rats? From the perspective of this film, you’re fighting against the stream to believe otherwise.