Eric D. Snider

The Departed

Movie Review

The Departed

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: A-

Released: October 6, 2006


Directed by:


Two dozen films under his belt, and Martin Scorsese can still crank out a gem worthy of comparison with "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas" and "Raging Bull." "The Departed" doesn't have quite the same air of brilliance about it as those classics did, but it sure comes close.

It's a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong action flick called "Infernal Affairs," which was an hour shorter and several fathoms shallower. It was a devilishly clever story about a police department and an organized-crime ring battling each other, both unaware that they had rats in their midst -- i.e., an undercover cop had infiltrated the gangsters, and a gangster had managed to become a cop. It's a great little movie with a great premise.

Scorsese, with screenwriter William Monahan ("Kingdom of Heaven"), has taken that caper's basic framework and injected some humanity into it. Where the original was concerned primarily with the mechanics of the plot, "The Departed," set now on the mean streets of Boston, gives real weight to the characters. It examines the two double agents' conflicted emotions. It allows the gravity of the situation to sink in, refusing to let it be just a cool crime flick.

Yet it's also a pretty cool crime flick. Just think of the intricate possibilities in such a twisted set-up: Billy Costigan (new Scorsese favorite Leonardo DiCaprio) is a screw-up from the wrong side of the tracks who, against all odds, becomes a state police officer. Given Costigan's unsavory background, Chief Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his abusive right-hand man Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) figure he'd make a believable undercover agent, so they send him into the bowels of a mafia operation run by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Meanwhile, Costello long ago took a fatherless boy under his wing and taught him the family business of extortion and violence. The boy is Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), and he's just graduated from the academy to become a state police officer, upholding the law while continuing to keep Costello informed of any police activity that relates to him.

Consider what will happen when the police department suspects they've got a rat in their midst and Sullivan -- who IS the rat -- is assigned to figure out who it is. He can't confess, obviously, but he can't report back and say he came up empty, either. He has to finger someone.

Imagine the parallel scenario in Costello's camp. He thinks one of his guys is disloyal to him. But how does a gangster run background checks on his thugs? How do you ferret out a snitch when your whole operation is based on deceit and corruption?

The plot is a work of beauty in its own right, for which most of the credit goes to the Hong Kong filmmakers who originated it. Scorsese brings out subtle themes, though, effortlessly creating this hostile world of casual racism and casual violence and making it seem both extraordinary and believable.

The film is all about communication, or the lack of it. One side of the law-enforcement team doesn't know what the other side is doing, Sullivan doesn't know one of his fellow cops has been sent into Costello's den, the Feds who know who the undercover officers are won't tell anyone else. Both Sullivan and Costigan must send furtive text messages to their secret bosses to keep them apprised, all the while trying not to be discovered by the people around them.

And like a lot of Scorsese's movies, "The Departed" is ultimately about masculinity, too. Crime and crime-abatement are both boys' clubs, and there's barely a female character to be found in the film. The only significant one, a police shrink played by Vera Farmiga, gives Costigan and Sullivan an outlet to do something they can't do with other men: communicate. Even within the police department there are figurative pissing matches and actual fist-fights between guys who are supposed to be on the same team yet who let pride and machismo determine their behavior.

The acting is sharp all around. Your skepticism of "Titanic" pretty boy Leonardo DiCaprio will hopefully have worn off by now so you can appreciate Costigan's increasing horror at the things he sees while in Costello's employ, his commitment to police work wavering as he fears he may never get out of this undercover operation. Note also how Matt Damon's unflinching two-facedness starts to crack as things get hairy in the film's last act. Admire Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg as two good cops, and Alec Baldwin as a tart-tongued fast-talking federal agent, able to be funny and menacing simultaneously.

And then dish yourself up a huge helping of Jack Nicholson as Costello. Viewed at first only in shadows, often shot from low angles to emphasize his power, sporting a goatee that makes his waggling eyebrows seem all the more satanic, Costello is the devil himself. He lives a life of pure debauchery (money, drugs, women, murder), enjoying evil for all it's worth. Nicholson plays the role to the hilt, reveling in the character's monstrosity without ever going over the top. Like Scorsese, Nicholson is a senior citizen who proves occasionally that he's still got the touch.

"The Departed" is the rare Hollywood feature that appears to have been made by someone who actually understands the language of film, who can do things with light and shadows, with camera positioning, with sound and music, to create feelings. That's to say nothing of Scorsese's knack for drawing pitch-perfect performances from his actors, as already noted. This is an excellent film, a throwback to the grittier, more substantial crime dramas of the '70s, and a reminder that movies can have weight to them and still be enjoyable as entertainment.

Grade: A-

Rated R, pervasive harsh profanity, brief strong sexuality, a lot of very strong violence, some of it graphic

2 hrs., 29 min.

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This item has 9 comments

  1. Brian says:

    Indeed a great movie. Nicholson manages to steal almost every scene he is in even with some great performances by DeCaprio and company. The editing of the movie was also well done in that, unlike XMen 3, it doesnt patronize the audience by having to explain every action in detail, it simply allows you to figure it out. The one down side to this movie is that during the showing I attended, a good number of people were laughing at some of the more dramaticly intense moments of the film. Its a shame to see that "The Departed" did not receive the apprciation that it deserved by a good number of people.

  2. Liz Cook says:

    Jack Nicholson's "rat" face performance was worth the admission... Damon, DiCaprio and Baldwin were also in fine form. Problem was the plot was unbelievable... How could Damon's character afford the chi chi Beacon Hill apartment on a State cop's salary? He certainly wasn't going to hob nob with Nicholson on Beacon Hill... therefore no reason for the State to pick up his rent. Surely someone might have had a suspicion that he had an alternate source of income when they looked at his address. Then there was the totally unbelievable female psychiatrist... too young, too volnerable and definitely not in the same talent league as the male actors. [SPOILERS AHEAD!!!] So we really think that DiCaprio wouldn't have followed her and discovered who her boyfriend was? Then there was the scene where the psychiatrist listens to the tape and realized Damon is a mob informant. Everyone else gets bumped off when the "truth" is revealed... I can't believe that Damon didn't finish her off when he realized she discovered his identity. Now, if the psychiatrist had been played by Diane Lane (a psychiatrist could realistically afford the Beacon Hill apartment and Ms. Lane could definitely play the part of a woman who could keep two relationships smouldering and separate) and we skipped the part about the (un)planned? pregnancy and skipped the cute scenes about the shrink movoing in with Damon... the implausible plot might not have been so distracting and the movie could have been a winner. I can't blame anyone but the director for this disappointing movie.

  3. rich thornock says:

    the plot is THICK. the point is that men in law enforcement and in the underworld and in real life layer and compartmentalize their existance. so they can watch their mothers die and then beat the crap out of some other mother`s son. its the dichotomy of the genders, baby! that is what makes scorsese great because you can look past all the pretty actors and get lost in the story. something that females could only be disappointed in, but i was not.

  4. Laura says:

    I probably wouldn't have seen this movie without reading your review, but I wanted something thick and juicy to sink my teeth in on a Saturday afternoon, and I wasn't a bit disappointed. Okay, the shrink was too obviously just there for male audience members to ogle, but whatever. The plot was intriguing and the performances were incredible. It was harsh and believable and I was completely ticked off that I had to run to the bathroom to pee toward the end. (I held on as long as I could, but, dang, two and half hour movie, here. I was in a bad spot.)

    [SPOILER] The only thing that drew me out--the ONLY thing--was the very last shot, which just had me wondering where the animal handler was. And thinking about how cute the little rodent was. Because no way would a real rat be running on a balcony rail in that kind of apartment. And because I keep pet mice myself, probably. But really. Too much. It did leave me thinking about it all the way home, though.

    All around, a thoroughly enjoyable, thinking movie.

  5. Paul says:

    [major spoilers, sorry] There are a number of strange things about this movie, such as the fact that DeCaprio's character spends a year in Nicholson's gang -- eventually becoming his most trusted lieutenant -- without killing a single person; ok, so they give him the morality quibbles about "I was right next to them when they killed people, it's almost like I killed them myself", which the psychiatrist promptly sorts out and the script promptly dismisses, but it's ridiculous that DeCaprio as an undercover cop isn't given any hard choices.

    But what I really wanted to mention, which no one else brought up, was the Boston setting. I went into the movie not knowing this was based on a Hong Kong film, and from that perspective Nicholson's character clearly represents Whitey Bulger, a former leader of the Irish mob in Boston, a former FBI informant who got tipped off from a double agent of his own shortly before he was to be arrested (you can see the similarities; Bulger remains on the FBI's 10 most wanted list). But the film does not include a title card "based on a true story" because the story doesn't want to be held up to that standard. Instead, it takes the most pessimistic elements of Infernal Affairs and the Whitey Bulger story, peppers the audience with shots of recognizable Boston locations, and ends with a shot of a symbolic rat running across the image of the Massachusetts State House. Which leads me to ask: what did Boston ever do to Scorsese??

    If the film had been staged in some nameless faceless city, the audience could leave the theater thinking about some of the general issues the film brings up: loyalty, idealism, lies, identity, etc. Situating the film in Boston was an artless choice since for anyone who's aware of the Whitey Bulger story the film's take-away message is instead "Boston sucks", and all of the film's intricacies transform from being thought-provoking what-ifs to the blunders of nameless or fictional Boston officials of the 80s and early 90s.

  6. chris j says:

    Great acting, but the second half is BORING. Just hurry up and shoot each other point-blank in the face already!

  7. Cedar says:

    Nicholson is just incredible. This flick is truely a work of art.

    Everybody's comments are so damn 'wordy'..............................It's a great flick, period!

  8. Debra says:

    Maybe if I hadn't seen Goodfellas(my favorite movie)and Casino(which I know most people didn't care for but was a great film) I would have liked The Departed. It was good,but overly long and tedious. And what's up with the ending? [SPOILERS] It was as if I could hear Scorsese saying "Oh, hell, this movie is really getting long. Let's just shoot everybody and be done with it." It really felt abrupt and almost tacked on as an afterthought.

  9. corned_beef says:

    I'd love to see this one put to a "re-view". If you wind up disliking it as much as I did five years ago, we'll be right back in sync!!

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