A film review by Craig J. Koban 

OCTOBER 9 ,  2 0 0 6



RANK: # 2



2006, R, 150 mins.

Frank Costello: Jack Nicholson / Billy Costigan: Leonardo DiCaprio / Colin Sullivan: Matt Damon / Madeleine: Vera Farmiga / Oliver Queenan: Martin Sheen / Dignam: Mark Wahlberg / Ellerby: Alec Baldwin

Directed by Martin Scorsese / Written by William Monahan, based on the film INFERNAL AFFAIRS.


Is Martin Scorsese the greatest living American director? 

I think so.  If you disagree, then maybe you'll need to give your head a shake and see MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, GOODFELLAS, CASINO...

...and...yes...THE DEPARTED.   

It has been said that his latest film is the veteran’s glorious return to form.  However, that sentiment is largely a misnomer.  Recent Scorsese efforts, like GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR, were among some of the best films of their respective years.  He has never made a “bad” film.  Surely, some of his past efforts have been mixed affairs (like NEW YORK, NEW YORK, THE KING OF COMEDY, and KUNDUN, to name a few). 

If anything, THE DEPARTED represents Scorsese more or less returning to his roots rather than returning to form.  The film demonstrates his mastery and command over a genre that he does best: the American crime story.  What’s even more remarkable about the film is that he takes themes and personas that he has focused on before and makes them fresh and alluring.  THE DEPARTED works as a crime epic, a daring and masterful remake, and – most importantly – a morality tale and grand tragedy. 

Scorsese has made great films in the last 15-plus years, but THE DEPARTED represents his finest work since 1990’s GOODFELLAS.  This is his purest, strongest, most confident, assured and unabashedly rough n' tough films that he has made since his last foray into the mob.  The film shares many similarities with his 1990 opus.  Both films center on the mob, albeit in a different form and environment (THE DEPARTED hones in squarely on Bostonian crime lords) and both examine the nature of loyalty and how men are divided by both power and their need to be loyal.

Scorsese has been focusing on characters that try to deal with personal demons since he started making movies.  It’s kind of his signature touch.  Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER struggled with his feelings of being a somebody while trying to make his way in a world that he despised.  Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS became torn between his loyalty to his mafia family and his guilt for possibly “ratting” them all out so he can leave that violent world once and for all.  THE DEPARTED is a continuation of this Scorsesian theme in the sense that it deals with two men – one on the side of the law and the other not – as they are thrust into corrupt and duplicitous lives that also challenge their notions of family and betrayal.  On these levels, Scorsese is a master painter and THE DEPARTED very rarely shows a misplaced stroke on its canvas. 

Scorsese can tell stories of cops and robbers better than anyone, but the most remarkable aspect about THE DEPARTED is how expertly crafted of an adaptation it is.  Based on the largely B-grade, Hong Kong crime caper, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan demonstrate how to take a modest film and open it up and explore it even more fully.  The essential story of THE DEPARTED is the same as is presented in INFERNAL AFFAIRS, but it is the small, subtle touches that make this a Scorsese film through and through.  Themes, as mentioned, are improved and expanded, characters are more developed and multi-faceted, and – more crucially – the film is laced with wall-to-wall, creatively conceived and colourfully vulgar dialogue exchanges and an utterly suspenseful narrative.  THE DEPARTED may be overlooked for two elements: It’s wickedly and darkly funny and is as taut and tense as anything the New York filmmaker has made. 

THE DEPARTED is 150 minutes long, but it felt like half of that running time.  This is one of the most exemplary paced films I’ve seen in many a moon, especially considering the sheer complexity and range of the underlining material.  It tells two parallel stories, yet it still is able to weave and interweave them successfully together to create one unifying whole.  There are many characters in the film (THE DEPARTED has a relative who’s who of strong talent), and the plot is – on the whole – a labyrinth – but the final product has such a pristine and calculating clarity.  It’s remarkable how Scrosese and Monahan are able to command interest in the film’s multitude of fascinating characters and individual stories.  This, no doubt, is assisted by Scorsese’s mastery of the overall material and by Monahan’s vividly evocative and creatively constructed story.  The film seduces so fully with its subject matter.  Few films this year have commanded audiences as forcefully as this one has.

The overall plot to the film is simple enough.  It involves two double agents infiltrating each other’s place of work.  More simply, a member of a mob family joins the police force to work as an informant to his mob boss and a police officer goes deep undercover in the same mob to act as an informant to the police.  The fascinating aspect of the film is that both sides slowly begin to suspect a mole in their respective organizations, so much to the point where each respective mole is trying to uncover each other to their “side” while trying to independently keep their covers from being blown.  Made even more complicated is the fact that both men become involved with the same woman and the woman may or may not be the turning point that will blow their cover for good.

As the film opens we are introduced to one main character (“some years ago” - presumably the 1980’s) in Boston.  Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) presides over his Irish neighborhood as a mob boss that seduces a young boy into his gang.  He does so rather simply: He buys the kid WOLVERINE comics and his family groceries.  During these opening moments we don’t see Costello in anything more than ominous silhouettes and muted shadows.  Scorsese's stylistic reasons here are twofold: He is visually suggesting the murky world of organized crime and is also showing the larger than life visage that the mob leader casts on the youth. 

Much like Henry Hill, the young tyke, Collin Sullivan, seems attracted by the world of the mob.  The perks seem limitless and the boss’ rationale and worldview seems kind of bulletproof.  At one key point Costello tells the boy, “When I was your age, they would say you could become cops or criminals.  What I'm saying is this:  When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?”  This logic seems to gel with the boy.  He grows up (played by Matt Damon) and is inwardly still tied to the mob, but instead joins the police academy.  Why?  So he can work as a mole on the inside.

Sullivan has no problem making his way to the top of command.  He is clean cut, likable, and the police poster boy for dependability.  The film soon tells the parallel story of young Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) who also tries to make his way up the ladder as a police officer.  He is, unfortunately, less well off than Sullivan and has a significantly harder time making his way to the top.  He wants a simple life as a state trooper, but Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) have another juicier and more dangerous assignment for the rookie.  It seems that they have handpicked him Costigan to infiltrate Costello’s inner circle of thieves and murderers in order to send them information to nab the mob don once and for all.  What Costigan slowly begins to realize is that (a) getting into to the mob is not easy and that (b) Costello is another breed of vicious sociopath altogether.

The film soon becomes an incredibly cleaver and cunning capper piece that cheerfully plays cat and mouse with the two informants.  Costigan risks his life to leak every vital bit of information to the cops about the details of Costello’s organization while Sullivan, being Costella’s inside man, counter-leaks info to Costello.  The film has great pacing, as mentioned, but the Scorsese does not rush the pathos and tension.  He lets it develop slowing to the point where it boils over with some real nail biting suspense.  The film is also intrinsically fascinating for its arc: Both men know that there are moles; both try to smoke each other out, but both have no idea about their real identities.  When they both become embroiled in a love affair with a police shrink (played by Vera Farmiga), their lives get even more complicated.

All of the undercover scenes – both within the police and the mob – grow more unsettling and tense as the film progresses.  The incredible amount of intrigue that the film generates is absolutely infectious.  The film effectively segues between each of the two young Irish men’s quest for glory as undercover agents, but when the film takes darker turns near its final third, it is here where THE DEPARTED becomes an accelerating exercise in masterfully crafted tension.  You never really know who will have their cover blown first, and Scorsese is like a grand conductor playing at the heartstrings of his viewers. 

A few on the film’s more subtle and quieter moments build up a sense of foreboding dread and anxiety better than any I’ve seen.  One seen in particular kind of leaves you breathless, as is the case where both Sullivan and Costigan inadvertently get each other on their respective cell phones.  They say nothing, and the silence feels like an eternity.  They are so tightly wound by this point that they are almost beyond words.  Of course, the film builds even more tension later, culminating in a single second of shocking violence that will leave the audience momentarily horrified.  At this point, the film teeters away from being a mob movie and into the realm of Greek tragedy.

Scorsese direction never misses a beat.  There is not one false note in THE DEPARTED’s two and a half hours.  His camera work (now legendary) is easily recognizable here, albeit in a bit more subdued form, and Michael Ballhaus' cinematography is lush, ominous, and shadowy.  Perhaps Scorsese’s most significant creative achievement is in his delivery of a completely authentic Bostonian mean streets.  He did so by not ever shooting a frame of film there.  Amazingly, THE DEPARTED was shot in New York (a usual stomping ground for many of Scorsese’s past films), but make no mistake about it, this film looks and feels like Boston.  It’s uncanny.  Also, like many of his previous films, Scorsese takes great pride in the little details and in short moments of genuine black comedy.  Some scenes in the film use inventively constructed bits of profanity as punch lines, and some of the dialogue really sings with a verbose wit and charm. 

The assemble cast is excellent, some giving the performances of their careers.  Damon, a relative newcomer to working with Scorsese, gives a commanding and solid performance as Costello’s secret informant.  The other supporting players (who range from veterans like Martin Sheen to Alec Baldwin), are also given their chances to shine in wonderfully written supporting roles.  Mark Wahlberg gives a cocky and domineering performance as Costigan’s handler (as he showed in 1997’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, when he is given the proper directorial guidance, Wahlberg can elevate himself to A-status).  Vera Farmiga, who was spunky and charismatic in this year’s underrated RUNNING SCARED, gives the film a performance of grounded humanity amidst all of its testosterone driven male angst.

Leo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson utterly own THE DEPARTED.  This is DiCaprio’s third turn working with Scorsese (he starred in GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR) and he has only gotten better and more mature with each film.  DiCaprio is a talent that has not received the respect and Oscar attention that he deserves, and he completely buries himself in the edgy and fragile persona of Costigan.  His portrayal as the police informant is a layered study in solitude and despair. 

Oddly enough, Jack Nicholson gives the most surprisingly strong performance in the film as the brutal mob boss.  I say “surprising” in the sense that he could have easily phoned in yet another one of those idiosyncratic Jack Nicholson performances where his own shifty personality comes across more than his actual character’s.  Yet, Nicholson is being monitored by the control freak in Scorsese, and under him he is able to fine-tune a performance as a villain that is not caricature, but a truly vindictive and soft-spoken monster.  Jack wisely never overacts, mugs the camera, or chews scenery.  Instead, he immerses himself in the role of a psychologically deranged lunatic that seems congenial and jolly at one point, and then becomes the perpetrator of wanton, sadistic violence the next.  As a detailed portrait of an aging, morally twisted crime boss, Nicholson’s performance just may be one of his best.  His work here is a treasure.

As a glorious and inspired symphony of violence, wonderfully crafted characters, taut and tense screenwriting, and of the best elements of the crime genre that only Martin Scorsese can deliver, THE DEPARTED represents yet another crowning achievement for the revered 63-year-old director.  After tackling such divergent subject matter, like 19th Century New York gangs and 20th Century aviation mavericks and innovators, THE DEPARTED represents Scorsese returning to the streets by making a film that harkens back to some of his best work.  The film has familiar Scorsese touches and thematic elements – big, sprawling locales, tortured and troubled characters, and moral issues like betrayal and loyalty. 

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of THE DEPARTED – beyond being another in a proud list of American crime classics from the director – is that it becomes something grander, more operatic as it’s story progresses.  It moves away from being a complex and daring story of good fellas and the people that want to shut them down and instead morphs magnificently into something that could be aptly described as tragedy on a Shakespearean level.  Bristling with suspense, filled with unforgiving personas and foul word play, and cemented together by Oscar calibre performances, THE DEPARTED reminds us why Scorsese is the most authoritative and evocative directors of his generation.  I engage in no hyperbole whatsoever by saying that films rarely – if ever – get better than this.  THE DEPARTED is a masterpiece and a modern classic.


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