Review: The Departed (2006)

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”

*This review may contain spoilers*

The Departed is a crime thriller directed by Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson. It is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs” and follows two moles infiltrating opposing organisations: Sullivan (Damon), a criminal who is rising fast through the ranks of the Massachusetts State Police and Billy (DiCaprio), an undercover police officer attempting to befriend Irish Mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson). The film won four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay.

If there was a category for “Best Ensemble Cast”, The Departed would have won five Academy Awards. I wonder if Scorsese knew the potential of what he had before or after he hired potentially the biggest group of heavy hitters in cinema. From leads DiCaprio and Damon, all the way down to supporting characters such as Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, everyone in The Departed is bringing their A-game and elevates an already great screenplay into something that sticks. DiCaprio gives a delicately balanced and layered portrayal as Billy, starting as an eager, street smart rookie that slowly descends into questionable morality and borderline insanity. To the audience, he always appears to be one loud noise away from a heart attack, but to his mob counterparts, he is the arrogant thug with all the right answers. It’s a thin wire to walk, yet DiCaprio doesn’t just demonstrate the anxiety and life-threatening risk behind his double life but forces us to empathise. As you would expect from an undercover cop story, some of the most nail-biting scenes involve Billy talking his way out of a situation with life or death stakes, which left me feeling physically exhausted at regular intervals, but especially when the character at the other end of the table was played by Jack Nicholson. Costello feels like an amalgamation of some of Nicholson’s previous roles. With the kooky unpredictability of Jack Torrance from The Shining, to the authoritative presence of Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men, Nicholson feels undeniably comfortable in this role to the point that he was bringing his own props to set. A tense interrogation between Billy and Costello led to an unscripted piece of movie magic, when Nicholson drew a gun to DiCaprio’s surprise and he continues the scene in a state of genuine fear. It’s another great example of the results that come from star talent and a director’s willingness to improvisation, which adds a level of emotion that cannot be acted. Costello isn’t a ground-breaking villain, but it is hard to picture anyone else playing him with such weight.   

I’ve always enjoyed watching actors who are usually known for a certain type of character be cast in a role at the other end of the spectrum. Enter Matt Damon: one of Hollywood’s good guys with consistent likability, then cast him as a conniving, two-faced dirty cop. Damon is great as Sullivan, a highly intelligent and charismatic special investigator who shares many similarities to Billy yet they are somehow polar opposites. He too must walk a thin line, attempting to keep a respectable and unquestionably honorable outward appearance when deep down, he is desperate to find the Captains Mole and not get caught doing so. There are some great dialogue scenes during the downtime that show Sullivan’s deceitful personality, but he also gets a lot of emotionally relatable scenes that develop a more human character, able to carry the film without being outright hated by audiences.

So many of the characters in The Departed are clearly shown to be neither all good or all bad: Billy has a temper and regularly instigates arguments, Sullivan can be a loving partner and is debating whether he should leave his criminal past behind, but none more evident than Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), a Police psychiatrist who is a routine liar and cheats on her partner with a patient. Madolyn acts as another link between our two leads, adding greater complexity to the chase to find the others identity first, but unfortunately seems more complementary to character development than to further the plot. Farmiga does an excellent job in portraying her characters mixed emotions, visually during the stereo scene but particularly in the funeral scene, in which she is grieving for the loss of Billy and resentful towards Sullivan’s deceit. Of course, I can’t go without mentioning “Marky Mark” Wahlberg’s Oscar nominated portrayal as Sargent Dignam, a foul mouthed, antagonistic Police Sargent who lives to poke fun at everyone and everything. Wahlberg is having so much fun in this role and essentially acts as a comic relief character to bounce off the other characters. Seeing this film for the first time long after its Oscar buzz, it’s hard to see why this was a nominated role, but he is always fun to follow and gets an emotionally heated scene that allows Wahlberg to also show off his great acting skills.

In typical Scorsese fashion, The Departed has a lengthy run time of 2 hours and 31 minutes. Unlike Scorsese’s recent movie, The Irishman (which lasts a whopping 3 hours and 30 minutes!), I didn’t once watch the clock to see how long was left. Director Lau of Infernal Affairs stated that Hollywood has a tendency to bloat their movies in comparison, which I would agree with to a point. However, The Departed uses clever editing to keep a steady pace, particularly in the first act where there could have been little going on besides character and plot set ups. Unrelated scenes are occasionally playing simultaneously, which at first seemed like a stylish art-house decision, but it plays a pivotal role in the ever-changing environment of the movie. This film relies on shock factor to keep the stakes real and the tension rising, which was both necessary and organic in Billy’s journey into the criminal gang during the first act. Scorsese uses music to weave this shock factor into ordinary scenes or to punctuate dialogue, with abrupt cut offs after doors closing or Costello shouting down the phone, which keeps us engaged by crystallising the idea that our characters are never safe.

Despite an endless list of accomplishments, The Departed does rely heavily on chance and suffers from a series of silly contradictions and a confusing timeline. For example, Billy being assigned to Sullivan’s love interest serves primarily to develop another link between our leads. The romantic sub-plot between Billy and Madolyn gives us some great development between the two, but essentially culminates in Billy giving Madolyn the tapes (despite not knowing she was in a relationship with Sullivan) which he should’ve just given to the Police as evidence against Sullivan. A more obvious example is the “citizens” envelope, containing personal details of all the mobsters, is ridiculously left openly on Sullivan’s desk, which confirms to Billy that he is the mole inside the department. Chance in movies is a repeat headache that should be overlooked if it doesn’t affect the quality of the overall story, which for the most part it doesn’t. However, there is one grating flaw that is persistent through the majority of the story, and that is the fact that Billy is so clearly the mole that Costello repeatedly claims he is likely to be. From the very first interaction between the two, Costello is instantly suspicious and states the entire rouse created to allow Billy to infiltrate his crew. From here, Billy doesn’t do much to prove otherwise, but instead exacerbates the situation by refusing to give over his personal details. There are several moments that had me screaming at Costello for being so oblivious, only for Billy to explain that, in the end, Costello trusted him above all others. It is too far a stretch to believe that Costello trusted Billy over any of his other crew, particularly French (Ray Winstone), a mass murderer who has been working as Costello’s loyal right-hand man for years.

The Departed is one memorable scene after another, but one of the most effective scenes is a gripping testament to the level of both the acting and the filmmaking in this movie. When Sullivan makes a call to Billy using the late Captains mobile, the scene uses wordless storytelling to convey layers of thoughts, emotions and realisations to the point that you know exactly what the two are thinking just through their body language. It is also a step closer to the inevitable confrontation between the two which, at this stage of the film, adds huge gravitas to their current cat and mouse relationship. Another great example of this technique is the Blade Runner-esque alleyway chase, which is both visually appealing and intensely exciting. The film folds one lucky break over another, with both Sullivan and Billy adopting varied methods to out the other, only for success to be snatched away at the last second. The film is a snowball of anticipation that culminates in one of the most shocking movie endings in modern history. Despite the shock finale being spoilt for me, I still wasn’t prepared for the sudden and almost unprecedented mass killing that flows shockingly to the credits. The experience still doesn’t end with the final cut, as questions begin circulating like what was in the envelope, was Sargent Dignam working for the mob and was Delahunt working with the Boston Police? It is left intentionally open, leaving room for hours of debates and theories that beg for a second viewing. And the cherry on top: Marky-Mark giving us a final moment of comeuppance with a headshot to Sullivan.

With a compelling story told through one of the greatest casts ever assembled, The Departed is one of those movies you can’t stop turning over in your mind even after it finishes. Consistently shocking with a steady build of anxiety inducing close calls, Scorsese seems to make a masterpiece every decade and doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. Despite being his only Oscar win for Best Director, The Departed isn’t the fun, entry level Scorsese you might show to the more casual viewer like The Wolf of Wall Street was, but it certainly earns its place in so many people’s hearts. I give The Departed a 9/10!

If you liked this review, please comment or share this post for others. If you have any similar or, even better, conflicting opinions of The Departed, please comment to open a healthy debate.

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