In Boston’s grimy crime-ridden underbelly, Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is high on the wanted list of Massachusetts State Police, who plant a mole, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) inside Costello’s operation. Unbeknownst to the police, Costello has performed a parallel manoeuvre, with his man Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) infiltrating the police system.
Gang-related violent endeavours? Heavy narration resplendent with copious amounts of swearing? Rolling Stones on the soundtrack? Within minutes it’s impossible to forget this is a Scorsese movie, and that’s by no means a bad thing. Scorsese isn’t my favourite director, to be honest he wouldn’t crack my top 10, but he does have a knack for making something entertaining and slick. I look at The Departed as not just being an American remake of Infernal Affairs, but also a slightly more modern and fast-paced update of Michael Mann’s Heat, a film I think is slightly superior to this one, but which might have benefited from some of The Departed‘s more entertaining aspects.
What entertaining aspects exactly? Well, basically, Mark fucking Wahlberg. Wahlberg plays Staff Sergeant Dignam, who works closely with both Billy’s and Colin’s bosses in the police force, Martin Sheen’s Queenan and Alec Baldwin’s Ellerby, as well as liaising with both Billy and Colin himself at various times. Dignam is, to put it bluntly, a son of a bitch. He’s undoubtedly good at his job, whatever that specifically might be, but he’s also in a constant state of insulting and belittling everyone around him, particularly our two leads. And in a film full of people fighting, cussing out and generally being not all that nice to one another, for Dignam to stand out quite so much is an achievement that was apparently worthy of nominating Wahlberg for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, although that would be the only award The Departed didn’t win, picking up as it did the statues for Editing, Adapted Screenplay, Directing and Picture. I think it deserved all those awards (I’m OK with Wahlberg not picking up the Best Supporting Actor role as, whilst he’s a highlight of the film, I don’t think it really stretched any kind of acting muscles too much to be a belligerent arsehole who is quick on the put-downs), and whilst many say that this shouldn’t have been the work Scorsese finally got the Best Directing Oscar for, I’m OK with it. It’s arguably one of the best directed films that year, alongside Paul Greengrass’United 93 or Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, so it’s not a point of contention for me.
Cast-wise this film is stacked across the board. Alongside the cops and robbers mentioned so far there’s the rest of Costello’s gang, comprised of Ray Winstone and David O’Hara, Kevin Corrigan plays Billy’s criminal cousin, and Anthony Anderson and James Badge Dale are fellow cops working alongside Colin. Everyone does a great job without a weak link amongst them, and they all have nicely different characters that shine through, even when they don’t necessarily have too much screen time. Where Sheen’s Queenan is a more reserved, professional superior to Billy, Baldwin’s Ellerby is enthusiastic and passionate, joking with his team during a briefing but later unleashing his fury at a tech guy who screwed up his job. Similarly, Jack Nicholson gets to portray a mob boss who is comparable to his Joker in terms of insanity and mood swings. One minute he’s sitting having breakfast in his leopard-print robe, the next he’s swinging a dildo around in a porno cinema. He’s the kind of character who can walk into a scene with blood splattered all up his arms and sleeves with no explanation offered or requested. That’s just what he’s been doing today, accept it and move on.
The final significant cast member is the film’s sole prominent female character, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), who if anything points towards an element of The Departed that goes a little too far for me. Farmiga is great, don’t get me wrong, but I feel her mere existence in the story sends everything into almost farcical levels of coincidence. You see, not only are Billy and Colin mirror opposites of one another in their respective cops and robbers operations, and each of them at one point or another is charged with finding a mole within their own outfit that we, the audience, know is themselves, but they also find themselves romantically entwined with the same woman, that being Madolyn. Colin falls for her in an elevator scene that’s one of the greatest pick-up meet-cutes in modern cinema, eventually going on to marry and settle down with her, whilst Billy is assigned to see her on a professional basis (she’s a police psychiatrist, dealing with PTSD and the like) which goes further than either of them intended. This love triangle ultimately becomes pivotal to the overall plot, but at times it felt more like a sitcom episode than a hard-hitting crime drama.
There’s some good but obvious juxtaposing of the lives being led by our leads, with Billy, who must surely be the hero of the film seeing as he’s a cop fighting to bring the mob boss down, being unable to talk to women and being arrested and locked up whilst Colin goes on a lobster and fancy chocolate tower date with Madolyn, before heading back to his lavish apartment with her. I found it interesting how often I forgot that Colin was an antagonist in the story, which is what happens when you cast Matt Damon in such a role. He rarely plays a character that’s easy to hate. Even in The Talented Mr. Ripley, within which he does several despicable, heinous and downright creepy acts, he still comes off as a likeable chap you kind of root for, even when he’s smashing someone’s head in with an oar.
This is worth watching for the performances and twisting story, but there are perhaps too few outstanding scenes to make it a dyed-in-the-blood classic. There are some noteworthy moments – the fact that Colin can send a coherent text without looking at his phone bewilders me – but sadly the abundance of flip-phones everywhere has severely dated the movie – and story-wise the third act is heavily weighed down with the action, in a way that the first time you watch is genuinely shocking, but the second time gives you something to really look forward to.
Choose Film 8/10