Original US release date: October 6, 2006
Production budget: $90,000,000
Worldwide gross: $291,465,034
If you’ve read enough of my work, you know that crime movies generally aren’t my thing. I have no issue with them in concept but, much like war-based films, they often share the same themes, plot points, as well as characters that are not only clichéd but also razor thin. In addition to that, the focus of the story frequently lies with a criminal, making it hard for me to relate to the central figure. When I first saw Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, right around the time of its original release in 2006, I expected much of the same. After all, Scorsese has made one crime film after another, so it’s easy to assume that one person can only have so much to say about a singular genre. Well, shame on younger me, as I loved the film and hoped I would still love it, over eleven-and-a-half years later, when I re-watched it for this column. And I did. Very much so.
Many are unaware that The Departed is a remake of a 2002 film from China entitled Infernal Affairs. In Scorsese’s version of the film (which closely mirrors the original), Leonardo DiCaprio portrays police cadet Billy Castigan. Castigan grew up in a crime family and set out to be better than he was raised to be. He enters the Boston Police Academy but before he completes his training, Castigan is chosen to go undercover and infiltrate the Irish-American mob, led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Unbeknownst to the police, Costello also has a rat in their department in the form of Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). As Castigan and Sullivan each attempt to respectively nail and protect Costello from the shadows, they each become aware of the others’ existence and strive to uncover each others’ identities while also guarding their own.
The narrative sounds like it might become a confusing mess of alliances and double-crosses but Scorsese’s experience has honed him into a master storyteller and the film is remarkably accessible and easy to follow. What makes this particular story stand out from others within its genre is that it’s not truly about the crime that so many of the characters are involved in; it’s a story about relationships and identity. It’s a tale that, with the obvious cosmetic adjustments, could be told as a romance drama or a space opera or a comic book film or a coming-of-age movie. The organized crime component is all just superficial window dressing. The heart of the film lies in the internal conflict within the characters and not in gunrunning or the drug trade. As a result, the film is relatable for the common folk and that makes it much more palatable than a typical crime film might be.
In the opening moments of the movie, Nicholson’s Costello remarks through narration that he doesn’t want to be the product of his environment; he wants his environment to the product of him. This is the central theme of the story and the battle that both DiCaprio’s Castigan and Damon’s Sullivan wage within themselves each and every day. Castigan is determined to be a good person and to shine a new light upon his family name, but can he stay true to that goal when he is immersed within Costello’s seedy world of organized crime? Similarly, Sullivan strives to be loyal to Costello, but it’s his job to uphold the law and he finds himself constantly surrounded by people who aim to make the right, moral, and legal choices that he has sworn against. So, will Castigan and Sullivan be molded by their surroundings or will they have the external effect on their world that they each desire to have?
Throw in their attempts to juggle their relationships with Costello, the department psychiatrist Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), and Captains Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) and Queenan (Martin Sheen) and just watching the two of them tiptoe through the tulips in order to maintain their covers is enough to remain enthralled and entertained for the lengthy 150-minute runtime. All involved give outstanding performances, as well (with Nicholson more natural than his usual over-the-top craziness), and it all leads to one of the more memorable climaxes in recent cinematic history.
Said climax is mostly what people still talk about, today, and it’s no wonder. It was the one part of the film that I still remembered fairly well, despite not having seen it in over ten years. Despite having a vague recollection of how it all played out, it’s still an adrenaline rush, escalated by Scorsese’s choice to downplay the visuals with simple shot framing, choreography, and the complete absence of a score. The matter-of-fact, just-another-day way in which everything concludes only compounds the shocking, jaw-dropping nature of it. If you have never seen the film, you should check it out at least once just to have this experience. (And don’t Google it! It won’t have the same effect without a familiarity with the cast of characters.)
The Departed won Best Picture at the 2007 Academy Awards (over some impressively tough competition), and Scorsese took home Best Direction, as well. In addition the film racked up wins in Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing and it’s easy to see why. The film truly has no weaknesses (unless you’re looking for a comedy, I suppose, but why would you turn to a Scorsese film for laughs?) and rises far above it’s relatively tired genre to deliver a heart-pounding mind game that’s one part cat-and-mouse and one part hide-and-seek. The final ten minutes will leave an unsuspecting viewer breathless but that doesn’t preclude the previous 140 from being nearly as thrilling. The Departed is one of Martin Scorsese’s very best films and is easily a modern classic within the crime genre.
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