“The Departed” Review

78The Departed [2006] – ★★★★★

              “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?” (Frank Costello) 

Martin Scorsese’s crime thriller The Departed, winner of an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2006, is considered to be the director’s finest take on the mob theme since Goodfellas (1990) (intermittently he also directed Casino (1995) and Gangs of New York (2002)). With many great actors involved in this film, and with such a meticulously constructed script, this is no wonder. The Departed is set in the south of Boston during the time when the police wages their war against the Irish-American criminal syndicate. The film starts off with young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) befriending the untouchable lord of crime, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Years later, there emerge two cops: one – Colin Sullivan, only too ready to infiltrate the state police as an informer for Frank Costello, and another Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a guy who grew up in a criminal environment, who becomes a gang member working for Costello, while at the same time working as an undercover cop. When both the state police and the mob begin to suspect that there is an informer within their circle working for the other side, both Sullivan and Costigan must race against time to uncover the identity of another to save their lives.

The script to The Departed, written by William Monahan, shines with complexity and intelligence, but it is actually based on a series of Chinese films shot in Hong Kong, but most evidently Infernal Affairs (2002). The Departed itself was written basing its account on the real-life events of a Boston gangster, Whitey Bulger. Whitey Bulger terrorised Boston neighbourhood for over a decade, infiltrating the FBI’s organised crime unit in early 1990s and using his connections to his advantage. Growing in the Little Italy part of New York, it is clear why Scorsese would be taken in by the script, and his primary interest lies in the understanding the life philosophy of people who are hiding behind other people’s identities. The Departed becomes a film about so many different things: it explores moral questions, people’s motivations and relationships; in a way, it becomes some cinematic encyclopaedia on the psychology of human behaviour. The film is a real brain-teaser, where knowledge is the most sought-after prize and everyone in the film is willing to pay a very high price for it.

While many films may come to mind while watching The Departed, including Face-Off (1997) and Miller’s Crossing (1990), the film most similar to The Departed is Donnie Brasco (1997), starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. This film is based on a real story of one FBI undercover agent, Joseph Pistone, who infiltrates the mafia and get so close to the Boss, that he gets mafia promotions. While the two films are comparable in essence, The Departed seems ten heads above Donnie Brasco in terms of complexity, the sheer number of plot layers and unpredictability of the ending. The Departed gets more and more intense as it progresses, especially at the point when the informers start to have agendas of their own, and sometimes the second viewing is advisable in order to understand every detail and catch every meaning in the dialogue.

The three main characters in The Departed: Colin Sullivan, Billy Costigan and Frank Costello can all make up their own character studies, being totally fascinating from a psychological viewpoint. Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent in the role of Billy Costigan, a man who severed his ties with crime, but still appears to work for the mob. It is DiCaprio who provides the necessary emotional input to this story: a good man torn between two worlds, at one time making a romantic connection with Sullivan’s new girlfriend. DiCaprio is Martin Scorcese’s Charlie (Harvey Keitel) from Mean Streets (1973), who is a good person forced to do bad things. Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan is also good in a way he displays slyness and opportunism, and the role is not that unfamiliar to him as he “killed” and took another person’s identity in his previous Anthony Minghella film The Talented Mr Ripley (1999).

Who steals all the limelight here is, of course, Jack Nicholson, and this is not because he plays the Baron of crime, but in a way he does it. He shows off his outstanding acting skills and has a magnificent screen presence. It is immediately evident, in every shot he is in, that his character commands authority, obedience and respect; he is feared all around, while at the same time, remaining in touch with the local community. The supporting cast is equally great. Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga all have their spotlight, but its Mark Wahlberg in his role of abrasive detective Dignam who is virtually unrecognisable here, and, thus, rightly gaining his Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.

the departed

One of the problems I thought was the dialogue in this film. It is sometimes hard to follow due to the jargon used, but yet again, this only adds to Scorsese’s want of realism and authenticity. Besides, the whole film is filled with such witty one-liners and quotes one would be forgiven for wanting pen and paper at hand. The dialogue is indeed polished to perfection, as this film itself, with virtually no scene being “out-of-tune” or character unconsidered.

The Departeds ending can be criticised and not unjustly so: it may appear silly or lacking in something vital. However, all this may only come to mind on the first viewing. On the second and third viewings of the film, one may suddenly realise that it may as well be acceptable that the film ended like it did. It should not be forgotten that Martin Scorsese is a man who is known for his portrayal of truth on screen, who perfects his films to achieve honestly and realism, however brutal it may appear, Goodfellas (in stark contrast to the romanticising of the mob life in The Godfather trilogy). So, at the end of the film, what on the first glance may appear like a comic twist a la Tarantino, can actually be categorised as the desire to portray violence/events as realistically as possible.

With an intelligent, pitch-perfect script, a never-ending list of great actors involved and outstanding directing, The Departed becomes a “must-see” film for everyone, especially for those who value Scorsese’s work or are into gangster-movies.


15 Comments Add yours

  1. Terrific quote from Jack, I also like…”you watch your fucking mouth,” “no, you watch it.” And she like seduces him and stuff, one of my all time favourite films. Great review :).


    1. dbmoviesblog says:

      Thank you! Yes, this film has some amazing lines. I also like -‘If they don’t do their job – you don’t have one’. And reply: ‘I’ll always have a job. I’ll just arrest innocent people’ 😉


  2. CMrok93 says:

    Not Scorsese’s best, even though it is the one he won an Oscar for. That said, it’s still a very great film. Good review.


  3. Zoë says:

    I absolutely loved this movie, excellent review!


  4. Tyson Carter says:

    Good job buddy. I would of loved this even more had De Niro not turned down the role that good old Jack took on. Maybe I’m biased 🙂


    1. dbmoviesblog says:

      Interesting, I didn’t know that. I heard rumours that De Niro turned down the role of Queenan, but reflecting on his recent performances, e.g. in Limitless, etc., I think he would have made a great Frank Costello too. I am more surprised to discover that Brad Pitt turned down the role Matt Damon eventually took on (I personally can’t picture Pitt in that role at all).


  5. ruth says:

    You probably think I’m nuts but I actually haven’t seen this film as I’m not one for violent films. But I should give it a shot. I’m curious about the original film, Infernal Affairs.


  6. Great review! I like you’re writing style! I watched it on tv again the other day, I agree on most of your points! We would love for you to check out our reviews when you can.


  7. jjames36 says:

    Very good review. I think it a bit more flawed than you do, but I agree with the most salient points. This is very good.


  8. Susu says:

    Scorcese is at his best and truly deserves Oscar for this film. Also notable are the performances of Matt Damon (such a great “bad-guy;” he really must do stuff like this more often), Leo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson (as always), and Mark Wahlberg (best since Rockstar). However, some in the theater with me who had seen Infernal Affairs did say that Departed did not live up to the original.


    1. dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks for the comment. As is usually the case, it is hard for any remake to live up to the original stuff.


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