Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger is a huge fan of shot-in-the-head slapstick comedy.
Our reviews of The Departed (Blu-ray) (published March 5th, 2007), The Departed (HD DVD) (published February 26th, 2007), and Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Contemporary (Blu-ray) (published May 31st, 2013) are also available.
Lies. Betrayal. Sacrifice. How far will you take it?
This two-disc special edition streets on February 13, twelve days before Ellen DeGeneres will host the 79th Annual Academy Awards. On that evening, Martin Scorsese will be sitting in the audience with his seventh Oscar nomination (this time, best director for The Departed). And America will find out whether one of our greatest directors will walk home empty handed again.
It won't matter much either way to Scorsese. He has yet again delivered a hair-raising crime epic and authoritatively silenced throngs of naysayers in the process.
Facts of the Case
Super-secret state cops Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) desperately want to bust South Boston's greatest mobster, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). But they know that Frank has planted his own people in the State Police. They need a mole in Costello's organization.
Young cops Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) both grew up in South Boston and both are part of Frank's organization. One of them is a rat for Queenan and Dignam, and one of them is Frank's informant. Neither knows the other's identity, but they're actively working against each other. Soon, their survival will depend on who discovers the other first.
When the war between Costello and the cops heats up, both men find themselves in twisted, treacherous situations. They'll need every ounce of their police training and Southie street skills to stay alive. Frank himself says it best: "When I was your age they used to say you could become cops or criminals. What I'm saying to you is this…When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?"
If the question on your mind is "Is The Departed as good as Goodfellas or Raging Bull?" then the answer is no. But people are asking those kinds of questions, which is a strong sign of The Departed's excellence. And as awards time draws near each year, the magnitude of Scorsese's missing Oscar grows.
The 2005 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was noteworthy for many reasons, but chief among them was the question-answer session with Martin Scorsese. Though Scorsese had been chair of the festival board for years, 2005 was his first keynote appearance at Full Frame. Scorsese was there to champion a documentarian from Italy, Vittoria de Seta. But the crowd was more interested to hear from him. Though he never explicitly mentioned the Academy or Oscar, it is clear that the thousands of people in the room were acutely aware of his continual snubs come award time. He got lots of mileage from self-deprecating jokes about his Awards karma (considering that Full Frame is, in fact, an awards venue).
Some (myself included) say that the best director and best picture noms for Scorsese's Gangs of New York and The Aviator were cosmetic; apologies for not granting him Oscars for (at the very least) Goodfellas. Each of those recent films had an imbalance of style or storytelling that would have made a Best Director award unfulfilling, or at the least contentious. The Departed is unquestionably good enough to deserve a Best Director award; if he doesn't win, Scorsese can consider it a definitive snub—and put some hits out on some people. Forget about it, what did I say?
The Departed makes a strong early impression for its creatively edited opening sequence. The title doesn't even come up until over eighteen minutes into the movie; those eighteen minutes establish the inverse relationship between Costigan and Sullivan. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker take great pains to make the contrast between the two absolute: one is a purely noble kid from a dirty family who acts like the worst criminal, while the other is a purely selfish kid from a good family who acts like the greatest hero. While the bad apple is sitting in a posh apartment and getting promoted right and left, the thankless mole gets expelled from the academy and sent to prison. This early character establishment pays off later when the two make similar choices and even tread some of the same steps. The Departed deftly weaves black and white into a tangled mass of gray threads.
This early cleverness and establishment of plot and character is intellectually compelling, but also relatively static. But when the unfairness of the setup comes crashing home with the title card, the die is cast and the play set in motion. This moment brings a familiar, blessed feeling: bad men are simmering bad deeds, and Scorsese is at the helm to show us the resulting boil-over. Great directors have an emotional signature that stands out, and Scorsese's signature always has an extra flourish when gangsters are in the mix. You just know that when it hits the fan, it is going to hit hard.
Even so, I was unprepared for the totality of the tension, the inextricable noose of sinuous plot threads that bound me to the screen. When Costigan begs a shrink for some drugs to calm his nerves, you can hardly blame him. There's visceral tension of the "trying to stay alive" variety, with both cops and crooks ready to kill him at a moment's notice. There's character tension, where he's forced to do things that violate his personality. Then there's the simple alienation of being a fish out of water, having no one to rely on. His situation is depressing. Meanwhile, Sullivan's house of cards is showing some structural weakness, and we watch him balance competing pressures simultaneously. You can't help but admire Sullivan's quick-thinking coverups.
Ensemble casts of this caliber are notoriously difficult to work with. The cast of The Departed is simply mesmerizing.
I've never agreed with people who bash Leo DiCaprio, and have always felt that the backlash against him was because of his good looks and the teeny-boppers who nearly crushed him with breathless, gooey sighs of longing. He's always shown brilliance as an actor. Now that he's older and looks a little rougher, it seems to be cool to respect his acting. I mention this because Billy Costigan is his best portrayal to date, and I wanted to be on record as a long time DiCaprio appreciator.
In The Departed, DiCaprio has so many layers that it is difficult to grasp them all. Costigan is smart and principled, so the conflict of his actions manifests itself in an explosive vulnerability that he can only release at certain times. His relationship with Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a criminal psychologist, is perhaps the clearest manifestation of this vulnerability. His sole session with her is brilliant. Leo gives Costigan a scholar's perception inside of a hood's street veneer. Costigan's blend of defense and offense needles Madolyn. He dominates their session so completely, and gets under her skin so effortlessly that I wanted to applaud. Yet Madolyn is perceptive enough to realize that Costigan is one of the most authentic people she's ever known. The paradox intrigues her, and is one of the saddest aspects of The Departed. Because he never breaks cover, she is never given the opportunity to know the truth about him. Yet the two connect on a level much deeper than she and Sullivan ever reach. The reasons why Madolyn falls for Costigan are never made clear to us, and they probably aren't clear to her character.
Speaking of Sullivan, DiCaprio's performance hints towards a similar "scholar's brain in a hood's body" that gained Matt Damon such acclaim in Good Will Hunting. Damon does not display such nuance in The Departed. As a matter of fact, his is the most one-dimensional character of the lot. But that is the purpose of his character, and Damon gives Sullivan a surprising watchability given his thoroughly despicable nature.
As for the rest of the cast, from the electric Mark Wahlberg to the perfectly cast Jack Nicholson to the darkly amusing Alec Baldwin, they knock their roles out of the park. I was less enthusiastic about Sheen's portrayal, but he was a last minute substitution for De Niro and the character was written with entirely different aims in mind. Sheen nonetheless makes Queenan a heroic figure with small screen time. There are many slow moments in the film, but no wasted minutes. Even the most inconsequential scenes have powerhouse actors delivering top-of-the-game performances.
This fine cast, armed with William Monahan's Oscar-nominated adaptation of Infernal Affairs, crafts a believable facsimile of South Boston. Watching these babies grow up to be cowboys, Southie's insular, self-reliant nature hits home. Where are the checks and balances, the external oversight? How can one city grow so corrupt that good and bad are unknowable? I'll never know, because I'm not from South Boston. But I can see why Scorsese chose to set his movie there. The societal implications are too rich to ignore. As the special features point out, Warner Brothers has been exploring this violent dichotomy for years, an insular world where a priest and a con can come from the same highly-regarded family. James Cagney gave us the best examples in flicks like Angels With Dirty Faces and The Public Enemy, and The Departed is a noteworthy modern addition to the genre.
One key strength of the film is that each character's point of view is carefully explained. When a character takes focus, you can see where he is coming from. When a contrasting viewpoint takes precedence, it is equally compelling. This continual shift in perspective adds yet more complexity to the tale.
Though The Departed is excellent, it isn't as good as Goodfellas. No one should take umbrage at that statement; along with The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America, Goodfellas stands atop a very small peak of perfect gangster films. The Departed is not as fluid or as cohesive as Goodfellas. Scorsese uses his patented "classic rock set to horrific violence" shtick, but it never achieves the hair-raising nuance of "Layla"'s guitar solo serenading frozen corpses. The Departed is more restrained, which could be interpreted as more "commercial." But the exquisite framing, combined with editing that reveals additional information, is far from commercial.
There are parts of The Departed that aren't as good as the best examples of their genre. For example, Heat is a superior exploration of similar men on opposite sides of the law gunning for each other. Heat also outblasts The Departed when the big action sequence hits, though The Departed kicks the melee off with more shock value. Donnie Brasco is a better exploration of undercover work, while Once Upon a Time in America's masterful editing better incorporates disparate subplots.
Nevertheless, no gangster film in recent memory does so many things well and weaves them together so subtly. You have to pay attention, and you won't get everything, but this is because Scorsese and Monahan are courteous enough to let the viewer struggle a little with the material. The Departed gives you the knot in the stomach that Scorsese is famous for, but it also rewards careful observation and reflection on themes and locale.
This approach nearly hamstrings Scorsese in the last act. With the deaths of certain key people, Costigan and Sullivan no longer have clear reasons for continuing their covert war. Their continued strife might be a subtle interpretation of Scorsese's beloved theme of paternal loyalty being man's central drive. It could also be a condemnation of tunnel vision in the face of altered circumstances. But we viewers are not given clear enough clues to why the characters are taking their actions. This has led to criticism that the ending of The Departed is rushed and incongruous.
Another hotly debated point about the ending is the absurdity of the ultra-violent denouement. One person is startlingly capped in the head, a la Pesci's Tommy De Vito in Goodfellas. Fine; it's a gangster flick. Seconds later, another character meets the precise same fate. Then another, and another. When the final character sees the same end in the cards, he mutters ironically: "okay, I get it." I wonder if everyone got it, because people rail against this absurd, unsatisfying ending. Personally, I have a hard time keeping at bay the mental image of Scorsese laughing behind his hand. This is the ultimate parody of the criticism he's drawn over the years for his over-the-top violence. Scorsese is too gifted and careful to not notice the parallelism of this absurd string of identical deaths. It is a satire of his own work. By the time these scenes take place, The Departed is already over, and the laugh was worth a few extra minutes of insanity.
Moving on to the DVD set itself, should you get this Special Edition? Well, there's no director commentary. But I promise that by the time Disc Two wraps, you'll feel like an expert on The Departed and Scorsese. The gem in this regard is "Scorsese on Scorsese," an extensive dissection of Scorsese's body of work from his roots to his recent stuff. This TCM biography is simply comprehensive.
Of course, it doesn't speak directly to The Departed, which is where "The Story of the Boston Mob" and "Crossing Criminal Cultures" come into play. The former is a fascinating, informative discussion of the real-life basis of the film and Whitey Bulger's reign over Boston. Featurettes don't get more detailed than this. "Crossing Criminal Cultures" is slightly "rah-rah, goooooooo Warner Brothers!" but is also a valid critical discussion of the gangster flick in film history. As for the deleted scenes, with the exception of overuse of the term "melted away," this is the most lucid deleted-scenes featurette ever. The scenes are rationally set up and are worth watching. It may not be The Ultimate DVD set, but The Departed (Special Edition) earns the second half of its title.
It should come as no surprise that Warner Brothers has provided a crystalline transfer of Scorsese's surprisingly gritty footage. This film is a stylistic departure for him, with soft focus and grit around every corner. Perhaps he wanted to emphasize the seedy qualities of a beautiful city. In any case, the transfer is up to snuff. The 5.1 track clearly weaves effects, dialogue, and deep cuts of classic rock. An Irish flair invigorates key tracks, bringing the setting crashing home with a brashness rivaled only by The Boondock Saints. Action scenes sparkle with molten lead, while dialogue takes on a lyrical quality. The surrounds aren't in constant use, yet the film is enveloping.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Much of the credit goes to The Departed's source material, Infernal Affairs, directed by Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak. Some say that Infernal Affairs is superior to The Departed, and some even say that a director of Scorsese's stature should not be cashing in on the Hollywood trend of remaking good Asian films. I won't stress that argument in this review; in part because I have not seen Infernal Affairs, but mostly because The Departed is a loose adaptation—and remakes are a fact of life. This is an exceptional remake. The bottom line is that if you love The Departed, chances are good that you'll enjoy Infernal Affairs.
The Departed has a central theme, which unsurprisingly is "what happens to the departed?" This theme is not subtle. I could barely count the oblique and direct references to the phrase "the departed." In one notable death scene (you'll find it in the "melted away" scenes), the guy even snorts to himself "ha, so I'm 'the departed,' huh?" and then gurgles in a wet death rattle.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but Jack Nicholson might have underplayed
his motivations. The Departed opens with a doozy of a monologue:
I expected this scintillating opening motivation to be reinforced or expanded. It was, but very quietly. Had he expressed more direct motivation while avoiding parody, Nicholson could have turned Costello into yet another defining role. As it stands, he's merely great in the role.
As you've probably picked up on, I find The Departed fascinating for the ways in which it just barely eludes knocking the crime cornerstones off of their lofty perch. This perspective is a backhanded compliment to a movie that reinvigorated a genre, director, and flagging movie season simultaneously. Anytime you're saying a movie is just slightly inferior to The Godfather and Goodfellas, you're saying that it is as good as films like Heat. That is a mighty fine tier to be on, and Scorsese practically broke that tier wide open with his gangster epics over the years. It should be enough to simply say "The Departed is a worthy Scorsese film." It should be enough to describe the visceral thrill, commanding performances, invigorating score, and visual artistry you're about to experience. It should be enough to grant some kind of award.
The jury is still out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Additional scenes with introductions by Martin Scorsese
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