The Departed

The Departed (1996) Director: Martin Scorsese

When I was your age they would say we can become cops or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?

★★★★☆

Based on a reimagining of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, The Departed brings together an all-star cast to deliver one of the best films of the 2000s. Producer Brad Pitt helped acquire the rights to Infernal Affairs, and with Martin Scorsese on board along with a soup of A-List Hollywood talent (Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, and many others), The Departed delivers a compelling, intellectually engaging movie that explores deep themes of identity, belonging, upward mobility, and hope. The title The Departed comes from a Catholic prayer for souls in purgatory (Martin Scorsese was raised Catholic) and in many ways the film is a prayer for empathy to broader society. The Departed won numerous awards including Best Picture and Best Director. In addition, Howard Shore delivers another excellent score, as well.

The Departed opens with scenes of the Boston bussing desegregation crisis -education and social mobility are key themes in the film. In The Departed we enter into the dark, morally ambiguous world of South Boston. We meet two young men, each devoid of a father, a church, and a good education: Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio). Both men search for belonging in order to rise above their current predicament and toward something better, more stable, safer, and more noble. We see scenes of religious iconography and most importantly the golden dome of the Boston State House which looms just out of reach (Sullivan often gazes up at it from his apartment) not unlike the green light across the water in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

“We deal in deception here. What we do not deal with is self-deception.”

Despite their dreams of a better life, neither Colin nor Billy are properly educated and so they do not know how to actualize or apply themselves. They become easily swayed by their peers. From a young age Colin can be seen carrying the groceries for a sleazy, eccentric, unhinged Irish mob boss named Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Nicholson based the character on Whitey Bulger. As he grows up Sullivan attends the police academy and becomes a Massachusetts State “Statie” Police Officer in the Special Investigations Unit while still working undercover for Frank. His division is under the leadership of the comical Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) who believes the best way to “get ahead” is by means of marriage rather than education.

Meanwhile, the other young man is Billy Costigan -a fatherless, motherless, rudderless, troubled young man whose family once had several connections to the Irish mafia. He is approached by the Boston Police for a covert mission. Two men offer him a new path: a traditional and upstanding man named Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the intelligent yet fiercely skeptical Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) suggest that instead of becoming a cop, Costigan should go undercover and infiltrate Frank Costello’s gang for the police. They devise an elaborate ruse in which Costigan is sent to prison on false charges and he finds his way into Costello’s crew. Outside of Queenan and Dignam, no one else inside or outside the police department is aware of Costigan’s mission.

“You know if you lied, you would have an easier time getting what you wanted.”

Thus we begin to see a brilliantly devised plot device, a central tension between two men posing as imposters in their respective roles: Sullivan, a mole inside the police department; and Costigan, a mole inside the Irish mafia. They both deeply desire the approval, trust, and acceptance of the men they are deceiving. They are torn between their public persona and inner personality. Their quest is to constantly prove false loyalty while searching for the other “rat” in order to preserve the fraud. Both men manage to fall in love with the same woman, Dr. Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), without the other knowing. At first she settles and moves in with Sullivan because of his secure socio-economic status as well as his charming demeanor, though he apparently has some sort of sexual problem, perhaps impotence (some more outlandish theories suggest he is a homosexual though this is not explicitly stated in the film). Costigan, on the other hand, comes to Madden as a patient. The stress of his double-life leads him down the road to suicide and he demands medication from Madden who he labels as a mere insincere shrink. Nevertheless, Costigan displays a rare sense of vulnerability and honesty with her, so she lies to her live-in boyfriend, Sullivan, and sleeps with Costigan. Later, Madden reveals to Sullivan that she is pregnant with a boy. The befuddled look on Sullivan’s face leads the audience to suspect the child may very well be Costigan’s, but this theory is never explicitly stated in the film.

“Do you want to be a cop or only look like a cop?”

At any rate, the film comes to head when Sullivan is placed in charge of hunting for “the rat” in the police department (which is himself) and vice versa for Costigan -Frank begins seeking out “the rat” in his organization. Captain Queenan is assassinated and thrown off a building, Dignam suspects Sullivan and smartly resigns from the force, and both Costigan and Sullivan learn Frank Costello is actually an FBI informant. A sting operation is organized and Frank is killed. Costigan is brought into the police department amidst much praise for his covert operation, he only wants his “identity” back, but he soon realizes Sullivan was Frank’s mole all along when they meet for the first time. He reveals the truth about Sullivan to Dr. Madden (without realizing she is actually Sullivan’s girlfriend) because she is the only person he can trust. Costigan attempts to arrest Sullivan (who privately admits his own guilt) but two other cops show up, one shockingly assassinates Costigan and then the other cop. The cop has also been secretly working for Frank this whole time. He suggests they work together now since Frank was informing the FBI but Sullivan immediately shoots the cop in the head point blank. Sullivan is then praised for his bravery by the police and he recommends Costigan be honored as a hero. At the funeral Sullivan sees a tearful who refuses to speak to him.

The film ends just as it began, with Sullivan innocently carrying a bag of groceries. He steps off an elevator as a dog winces and avoids his friendly hand. He opens his apartment door to find Dignam standing alone in his apartment. Before Sullivan can say a word Dignam shoots him in the head and quietly leaves. The film ends as good and evil are reaffirmed, and we acknowledge Dignam as the true hero of the movie (Costigan is merely the tragic hero). Dignam is highly intelligent, confident, skeptical, educated and he does not seek to impress or flatter other people for their approval. Queenan describes him as having “a style of his own” because he speaks with a frustrating degree of conviction.

“…no one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

In a lawless, Homeric world like South Boston, status is everything. How does someone advance himself? In The Departed, several opportunities are offered for advancement to a safe, secure, middle-class life: religion, education, and marriage. The Catholic Church has long lost its relevance and few of the protagonists are married. However, for men without education, confidence is lacking and thus they become susceptible to the whims of evil, self-serving organizations. The idea of lying your way to the top is contrasted with the integrity granted by passage into a legitimate livelihood via education. Street smarts are contrasted with book smarts. Characters who possess too much of one or the other are shown not to be survivors. For example, Sullivan wants to go to law school but he is swallowed up by the deceptive allure of Frank’s gang. On the other hand Costigan is brilliant, having scored in the 1400s on the SATs, but he has no legitimacy nor self-application to secure a path toward normalcy. Captain Queenan, on the other hand, lacks street smarts (he is completely unaware that he is being tailed) and it costs him his life. However, in the end the last man standing is Dignam -an educated man with street smarts who has a plan and executes on that plan (note that he is even wearing shoe coverings at the end to prevent any possibility of tracing his murder). Dignam thinks for himself and he comes to his own conclusions, hence why he is not subsumed by the flawed machinations of inferior men. In the words of Margaret Mitchell, Dignam has “gumption.”

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

The Departed is a brilliant, praiseworthy modern mobster movie -the plot is well-devised and executed as is the cinematography, acting, and directing. However, in my humble view the outrageous levels of profanity, violence, and gratuity really distract and detract from the movie. Much of the dialogue borders on shockingly grotesque debauchery and is wholly unnecessary. There is a distasteful scene (apparently created by Jack Nicholson himself) wherein Frank shockingly brandishes a dildo in a porn theatre, in another scene he is oddly tossing cocaine on prostitutes, in another he showcases a severed hand in a bag, in another a broken arm is brutally re-broken, in another we see pederast priests, in another someone is being shot point blank between the eyes, in another a man is being threatened with castration, and so on. In nearly every scene of the movie there are ceaseless vulgar retorts, all of them graphically sexual in nature. Perhaps this is merely the opinion of a nostalgic simpleton but I prefer movies that do not arouse feelings of total disgust. At any rate, The Departed is still an incredible movie if you can look past these shortcomings.

2 thoughts on “The Departed

    1. I find that it’s becoming a problem for many acclaimed filmmakers over time. I wouldn’t say it’s their fault. But times change enough for the impact of one’s film work to specifically lose some of its magic. Even Spielberg is sadly no exception. I still enjoyed The Departed and it’s quite fittingly one of Scorsese’s best.

      Liked by 1 person

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