Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by William Monahan
In The Departed, a raucously sordid meditation on the ways of the lower-class Boston Irish, director Martin Scorsese has included a passing tribute to Carol Reed’s peerless film, The Third Man. Reed’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novella concludes with a bitterly disillusioned woman, played by Alida Valli, walking toward the camera along a cemetery path. As she gazes resolutely into the middle distance, her would-be swain, Joseph Cotten, stands waiting for her in the foreground. When she reaches him, she doesn’t stop but walks by wordlessly, refusing him so much as a glance. Crushed, he hangs his head, resigning himself to her magisterial rejection.
Scorsese’s rendition of this pas des deux also takes place in a cemetery and is meant to represent another relationship’s mournful dead end. Typical of Scorsese, however, he and his scenarist, William Monahan, have not been content with the silence that served Reed’s film so eloquently. Instead, they have the young man speak his plaint to the woman. His remark is dramatically gratuitous, since both the lady and the audience know very well what’s on his mind. But Scor-sese doesn’t trust his audience. He insists on announcing it out loud.
This small moment reveals the best and worst in Scorsese’s work. His films are fully informed with the tradition that precedes them, and his mastery of his medium is unsurpassed by any other director working today. Despite his manifest gifts, however, he lacks the one that might transform him from a marvelous entertainer into the genuine cinematic artist he so clearly longs to be. In short, he lacks aesthetic tact. He doesn’t know when to let up. If there is a top to be gone over, he’s your man. The shooting victims in Mean Streets didn’t bleed; they erupted in geysers of blood. In Raging Bull, it wasn’t enough to watch punches twist and crumple boxers’ faces. We had to watch them spray black blood onto the ringside fans. In The Last Temptation of Christ, nothing short of stripping Jesus naked for His Crucifixion would suffice. (Yes, this may have been historically accurate, but there are moments when decorum should prevail over absolute authenticity.) Casino gave us a blow-by-blow rendition of Mafia justice, showing us two men beaten nearly to death with baseball bats before their broken bodies were dumped, still breathing, into a grave. Scorsese apparently thinks that excess is the road to the palace of art. It is not surprising, then, that The Departed exhibits a similar exorbitance, but it is disappointing. The film has so much to offer otherwise.
The story line has been adapted from Infernal Affairs, a Hong Kong film I haven’t seen but am told is a superior example of the police-and-gangster genre that the Chinese learned, in part, from Scorsese himself. Like its source, Departed concerns a double plot. Two young men are inducted into undercover work by their masters. From the age of ten, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has been groomed by South Boston’s notorious mobster, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), so that, at the right age, he can join the police force to act as his criminal guardian’s mole. Meanwhile, the other young man, Billie Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), from the same underprivileged neighborhood as Sullivan, becomes a cop at the same time and finds himself chosen by the Special Investigations unit to become a mole in Costello’s crew. In a series of sharply edited montages, we watch the two men carry out their assignments, each taking greater and greater risks to serve his demanding superiors. Every time Boston’s finest think they have Costello cornered, Sullivan either warns the crime boss or thwarts the investigation. Meanwhile, Costigan keeps the head of Special Investigations informed of Costello’s every move.
As they perform their undercover missions, Sullivan and Costigan are at first unaware of each other’s existence. Then, through a series of cell-phone mix-ups, each becomes electronically aware of the other’s shadowy presence—and the fatal hunt is on. Sullivan’s corrupt Jekyll seeks Costigan’s virtuous Hyde, and Costigan returns the favor. With matching physiques, square faces, and crew cuts, Damon and DiCaprio look uncannily similar, like shaven-headed Marine recruits. With each move they make, their mirroring countermissions begin to converge. This makes for a devilishly—even ridiculously—complicated plot filled with many a hairpin turnabout as each uncovers information that threatens to expose the other. They even share the same girlfriend. As you would expect, she is a police psychiatrist named Madolyn, in deference to the encompassing Catholic ethos. Madolyn/Magdalen has a taste for troubled men with hidden personalities. Despite Colin’s problems with stress-induced impotence, she finds him all but irresistible. This likely has to do with his brash boast that Sigmund Freud judged the Irish to be “impervious to psychoanalysis,” which, of course, they are. Billy, on the other hand, may be even more seductive. With his inner self so buried in his psychic deep freeze, there is no need to cite Vienna’s quack-in-chief. One look at Billie’s perpetually sweaty squint, and you instantly know he’s immune to head shrinkery.
As engaging as the players are, the film suffers from Scorsese’s reluctance to settle on a single vision. Using the hyper-real Hong Kong police-and-mobster fantasy as his template, he has awkwardly based his cinematic mobster Costello on a real criminal, the notorious Whitey Bulger, who terrorized Boston’s infamous Southie neighborhood from the 1970’s until 1995, when he suddenly disappeared to parts unknown with or without the help of his brother, Billie Bulger, the long-time president of the Massachusetts state senate and, astonishingly enough, short-term president of the University of Massachusetts. Whitey Bulger was and undoubtedly still is a sociopath of monstrous proportions. A confirmed killer, he exploited his South Boston neighborhood camaraderie to oversee drug running, protection rackets, and pornographic commerce, insulating himself from arrest by his political connections and his sweetheart deal with the FBI, for whom he snitched tirelessly, surrendering his own fellow criminals when necessary. He was also a switch-hitting seducer of adolescent girls and boys and kept suspicious parents at bay with a combination of threats and pay-offs. Despite their reputation for toughness, few in Boston Southie were willing to stand up to him.
Like Bulger, Nicholson’s Costello has a perverse taste for young people on whom he exerts an influence that is alternately corrupting and paternal. We see him first stepping from the shadows in a neighborhood soda fountain cum grocery store. He is there to shake down the owner. Having accomplished this part of his mission, he leans across the lunch counter to ask the owner’s 14-year-old daughter, in full view of her father, if she’s had her period yet. When she stares at him nonplussed, he leans even closer and whispers something in her ear. He then turns to a frightened ten-year-old boy, advising him not to believe anything the nuns tell him in school. With this, he buys the kid a bag full of groceries. The boy is Colin, and, although he doesn’t realize it, he is being recruited into Costello’s gang. A few years later, Costello quotes to him James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus by way of Satan. “Non serviam,” he drawls, and the boy improbably identifies its source. Costello beams with malevolent glee. “Smart boy,” he says approvingly. Like so much else in Scorsese, this moment is a stretch. Of course, it’s meant to establish that the youngster is now of the devil’s party and will not serve sanctioned authority nor stand for truth. But, come on, would a 14-year-old in a lower-class neighborhood have read and understood A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? And if he had, would he be the kind to go on the police force, however profitably corrupt his intentions?
As Costello, Nicholson draws upon all his previous performances of the aboriginal rebel. His satanic, leering grin, his gable-arched eyebrows, his breathy, sneering voice—all advertise his sinister force. You half expect him to sport a cloven hoof and reptilian tail. Actually, he does in a way. Calling Sullivan to a clandestine meeting in a pornographic theater, he startles his mole speechless by emerging from the darkened front seats flashing a sex toy and chortling maniacally. (Nicholson reportedly convinced Scor-sese to include this scene. Elsewhere, the director exercised some uncharacteristic restraint. He refused to indulge the demonic 70-year-old’s request to show him disporting himself with two naked female acolytes.)
The film is crammed with first-tier actors, successfully wielding their adoptive Boston-Irish heritage as if it were a perpetual St. Paddy’s Day. There’s Alec Baldwin broadening his a’s to beat the band. Ray Winstone menaces with his growling r’s. Mark Wahlberg spouts more vulgarities than you hear at Fenway Park after a Red Sox defeat. And, as the upright head of Special Investigations, Martin Sheen is given to blessing himself now and again, even when he’s not in his vestibule where the walls are bedecked with family pictures arranged around a central portrait of the Sacred Heart. The performances are by turns funny and touching, vulgar and pious, and they are all undeniably deepened by Satanic Jack. Nicholson’s Costello is a more dissolute, shabbier version of Harry Lime in The Third Man, which is what Scorsese may have been signaling by referencing the earlier film’s cemetery scene. Like Harry, Costello is alternately charming and chilling, magnetic and repellent. He is, in short, evil incarnate. He’s the sulfurous ballast that gives the film whatever moral weight it has.
Still, Scorsese can’t leave well enough alone. He must lay on the kitsch impasto. Consider a shot taken from Colin’s sleek, upscale apartment. Directly across from his window gleams Massachusetts’ gold-capped state capitol. It fairly shouts of Colin’s corrupt aspirations to gain wealth and power by any means necessary. Then, as the camera lingers on the gilded view, a fat, droop-bellied rat skimpers onto the window ledge and runs the entire width of the wide screen. Thanks, Marty. I might not have understood otherwise.