The Departed: Less than Perfect, but All is Forgiven

jack nicholson and matt damon in the departed
Mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) with police informer Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in the The Departed.

The most ironic of the many adages asserted by killer/gangster/sidewalk philosopher Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in Warner Brothers’ new film, The Departed, ultimately comes off like a rant from the grave by novelist Theodore Dreiser:

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”

Although the mobsters are Irish, not Italian, and the location is South Boston instead of Brooklyn, make no mistake: we’re in Scorsese country. Here, nobody rides for free, and very few survive. And in any knock-down drag-out between a character and his environment, you should put your money on the neighborhood.

In a surprisingly brisk, two-and-a-half-hour story brimming with beatings, murder, betrayals, extortion and corruption, scriptwriter and Boston native William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven, 2005) deftly adapts a 2002 hit movie from Hong Kong, Infernal Affairs, to re-invent themes from the 1988 movie Goodfellas on his home ground. Many elements of director Martin Scorsese’s earlier classic emerge in his new film: the mentoring of criminals from boyhood, the importance of cronies over family, the value of paranoia over friendship and the dispensability of just about anyone.

Though, in a final analysis, The Departed is a more unsettling film than Goodfellas because the venality it depicts has wormed its way into the ranks of law enforcement. Matt Damon portrays Colin Sullivan, an upwardly bound, ambitious cop in the Special Investigation Unit of the Massachusetts State Police who is actually a mole in the employ of mob boss Frank Costello. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, an undercover cop who works for a sister investigatory unit in the same police department. Eventually each cop is given the assignment of exposing the true identity of the other; and the driving tension of the plot emerges from the frenetic survival race between Sullivan and Costigan.

Damon taps the same energies he used so skillfully in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) to deliver a journeyman performance as the deceitful Sullivan. He serves up the patina of civility and the honest-cop pose in just the right proportions to appease the higher-ups while, at the same time, undermining their efforts.

leonardo dicaprio in the departed

DiCaprio has arguably endured the most prolonged onscreen adolescence since Mickey Rooney – The Departed represents his film Confirmation.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, however, is the more conspicuous achievement. DiCaprio has arguably endured the most prolonged onscreen adolescence since Mickey Rooney. Gone finally are the scrubbed-clean choirboy look and the heart throb pose. Billy Costigan stays closer in character to son of a bitch than saint throughout the story, and DiCaprio’s role as such in The Departed, I’m pleased to report, represents his film Confirmation. (Let’s face it: DiCaprio’s attempt to grow up to be Howard Hughes in The Aviator is a glassful short of a quart of pasteurized milk.) The innocent Titanic stowaway has surfaced from steerage, mirabile dictu, as a man this time credibly in need of a shave and a drink considerably stronger than the cranberry juice he demands during an at once fearsome and hilarious rite-of-passage bar scene in the current film. Continually on the edge of blowing his own cover, Billy flits between volatility and restraint, machismo and depression. A third of the way into the movie, he discovers that his job wasn’t as easy as he had thought, and now Billy wants his identity back. Trouble is that his supervisors insist that Billy stay the course until he tracks down “the rat” in the police force. But Billy is as much prey as he is predator because Damon, under unrelenting pressure from Costello, is charged with smoking out the “rat” inside the mob that happens to be also hunting him down.

Jack Nicholson is characteristically obscene, vicious and unprincipled in his role as Frank Costello. Throughout his career, film audiences have come to hunger for his reliable albeit predictable ingenuity as their tour guide through Hell. A scene in which Nicholson does his exquisite and uproarious impersonation of a rat (the four-legged variety) is, in itself, worth the movie’s admission price.

If Nicholson’s character represents the glue of Evil in the story line, its pathos resides in police psychiatrist Madolyn, portrayed by Vera Farmiga (The Manchurian Candidate, 2004). She winds up compromising her own professional reputation by having an affair with co-worker Sullivan, and then becomes her own hard act to follow when she hops in the sack with quick-to-become ex-patient, Billy Costigan. With notable proficiency, Farmiga gives us a Madolyn whose emotional balancing act invites more sympathy than scorn, lends richness to the theme of betrayal and becomes a catalyst for the film’s explosive, if imperfect, finish.

There ought to be a law that prevents us from using the phrase “supporting roles” to describe the kinds of superb performances turned in by Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin. Writer Monahan is adept at injecting his characters with fair and equal doses of testosterone so that the three acting veterans wind up promoting rather than outdoing one another; and together Sheen and Wahlberg manage to turn in a good-cop-bad-cop tap dance that should become a classic.

It’s safe to say that Martin Scorsese is not merely preoccupied with the loyalty/betrayal equation; he’s obsessed with it. The theme pervades his core work. It’s the material of the finest opera, and after watching magnificent Scorsese films for three decades, one understandably holds his breath when he first sits down to watch the current film.

Unfortunately, the twists and turns come too precipitously at the very end, and an almost perfect film lapses into just too much silliness and bang bang shootem’ dead. And the very last scene serves up a symbol that’s entirely too cheap and obvious. An audience can almost hear the voice of the director in the background as he prods the screenwriter: “We’re over budget. Are we finished yet?”

But we crave a deeper experience from the subtle director who knows how to accentuate his soundtrack with a recording from Lucia di Lammermoor and who intricately inserts into his footage a film clip from the John Ford 1935 classic film, The Informer. What this film needs in the end are fewer pratfalls and mishaps in the guise of instant destiny and more audience grieving room for its departed.

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