Young Colin Sullivan lives in a poor, rough neighborhood in Boston. As he struggles with life in this neighborhood, he notices a gangster by the name of Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) who seems to have the world in his pocket. Costello helps the young man and soon, Colin (Matt Damon) has enrolled in the police academy. Also entering the academy, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), another young man from the same neighborhood, has joined the police for a different reason; he wants to do some good. Upon graduation, Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), two officers in the Massachusetts State Police, approach Billy and ask him to go undercover in Costello’s organization. They are running a secret operation and no one but Queenan and Dignam will know Billy's true identity. Soon, each is working their way up through the individual organizations, providing information to help the other side. Then, one day, Colin learns of a possible informant in Costello’s organization and informs his benefactor. Frank becomes skittish and asks Billy to help locate the mole. At the same time, Ellerby (Alec Baldwin), Colin’s supervisor, asks him to help locate Costello’s mole. Will each learn about the other?
Directed by Martin Scorcese and featuring a wealth of actors working at the top of their craft, “The Departed” is a great film. Based on a Hong Kong movie called “Infernal Affairs”, Scorcese and company have added moments of humor, violence, sexuality, twists and suspense creating a very different experience. The original film featured a number of long cat and mouse chase sequences which are hinted at here, but are largely forgone in favor of more character development, creating a richer, more interesting film.
Any time you have a film and Mark Wahlberg is the fourth lead, taking a co-starring role, you know you are in for at least an interesting experience. This film has an incredible cast. But there have been many flops with incredible casts. The difference here is that each and every one of the leads could be in a film about their character alone and that film would be very good. But combining all four has created one of the best films of 2006.
Nicholson is outstanding and back in fine form, playing the over confident, powerful, sociopath gangster Frank Costello. Costello runs the neighborhood where he grew up and when that becomes too confining for him, he moves into other areas of Boston. Ruling with an iron fist, using fear and intimidation to control, he works with a loyal crew, but he is not without his problems. Exhibiting erratic behavior (a kind understatement), Frank will kill you before he asks questions if he suspects you of informing on him. The performance is just slightly over the top, scary and menacing. There is a beautiful scene in which Costello enters a bar from a backroom to address his crew who is hanging out. His lower shirt sleeves covered in blood. He addresses Billy and his team and then yells “Bring a mop” and heads back to finish the business he started off-screen.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a young man with a troubled family past. Upon graduation from the academy, he is approached and asked to take on this dangerous assignment particularly because of that troubled past. DiCaprio does a great job as well. Most of the time, this type of role would be played with a poker face, nothing getting through the rough exterior of the character, but DiCaprio plays the role with more emotion, making him more human. Every time he witnesses a murder, it shocks him. If someone double crosses him, he can’t figure it out and is taken aback. In other words, every emotion crosses his face. In a way, this makes sense. If I were Costello, I would want someone who was a human working for me. It would make them more vulnerable to threats, should the need arise.
Later in the film, as Costigan becomes further isolated, he turns to the one woman he knows, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) for comfort. Their relationship is passionate, but Madolyn is in a relationship with another man, so she can’t fully commit to him, even though she would probably prefer to.
Matt Damon plays the other Southie, Colin Sullivan. As Costello’s plant, he walks a fine line throughout; he has to keep his boss happy, and keep him informed, but he also has to do his job and make sure he is never suspected. Throughout the film, Damon brings a believable sense of nervousness to the character, making him always appear on edge. Also, as Colin is promoted by his supervisor, Ellerby (Alec Baldwin), he has to hide his sense of contempt for his superiors; he can't believe how dumb they are.
Damon also does a great job of turning on the charm as Colin. Setting his eye on Madolyn, a police psychologist, he flirts with her and literally charms the pants off of her. As they build a relationship, his conflict increases.
These are easily two of the best performances from Damon and DiCaprio. Each has had an impressive career, but in Scorcese’s hands, they show they can handle difficult, multi-faceted roles. We don’t necessarily like either, and Damon is especially susceptible to our scorn. Yet, somehow we care about both. Even as we watch Damon’s character doing despicable things, we have seen the influences in his life and recognize how these have shaped him.
Mark Wahlberg is memorable as Dingman, the foot soldier for Sheen’s Queenan. They have worked together for a long time to erase corruption in the department and to catch Costello and have a strong bond. Dingman has little time for questions and doesn’t believe a lot of people. The first meeting between he and Costigan is especially memorable, as Dingman does little but swear. Even so, he gets his feelings across.
Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Ray Winstone round out this great cast.
What more can be said of Martin Scorcese that hasn’t already been said? Easily, one of the greatest filmmakers ever, he has had some missteps in his career, but overall, you can count on a Scorcese film to grab you by the throat and take you for a ride. "The Departed" is no exception.
Just about every great director can be easily associated with one or two frequent collaborators who have helped them achieve their status. Hitchcock had Cary Grant, James Stewart and Bernard Herman. John Ford had John Wayne. Billy Wilder had his frequent screenplay collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. Scorcese has Thelma Schoonmaker, his longtime editor. This is frequently one of the best things about Scorcese's films, the editing. It always successfully helps to evoke the mood of the feeling. In "Raging Bull", they created a unique style for each fight. In "The Age of Innocence", the editing was slower, more languorous to match the tone of the film. In "The Departed", they create a frenzied, visceral experience, cutting back and forth between the two characters and their lives. Sometimes, we watch the two people in different worlds at the same time. Yet, Scorcese and Schoonmaker always keep us in the thick of things.
Throughout, there are brief glimpses of crime scene photos, murders, etc., providing us with a brief, but memorable visual match to what the characters are talking about. These shots are so brief; we have to wonder if they actually appeared. It is almost as though the filmmakers are giving us a test, to see if we are paying attention. Showing these things for such a brief period is akin to the experience of reading a book; our mind has to fill in the details and our mind does a frighteningly good job.
My one complaint is that during a montage of scenes, the last frame of each scene is held for a couple of seconds, giving the feeling of stop motion. It doesn't seem effective and draws us out of the picture. Thankfully, this is only done once. But this is a small complaint in a film this good.
There has already been a lot of comparison between this film and “Goodfellas”. I think this does this film a disservice. “Goodfellas” is an acknowledged classic and I don’t think “The Departed” has had enough time to rise to that level. Yet. Perhaps, with time and upon reflection, this new Scorcese film will earn a place alongside the other. I’m not sure yet. They are very different films. “Goodfellas” told a story about one group. “The Departed” follows two separate groups working against one another. I’m pretty sure “The Departed” will be remembered as one of Scorcese’s best, but that comes with time. No film is a true classic when it is first released. We have to wait. And see how they hold up.