The 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs had a pretty cool premise. The police force and the criminal underground had moles in each other's operations at the exact same time. They each knew the infiltrator was there, but not who it was. No information could be trusted, and every move either side made could possibly be telegraphed to their enemy. Using the metaphor that the undercover operators were no longer amongst the living, that they had surrendered their identity and entered a netherworld of deception, the original filmmakers created a crime picture that kept its audience on its toes, but also came off as a little more flash than substance. Cool idea, slick execution, but little more.
Martin Scorsese has remedied this in his remake, The Departed. While maintaining the vertiginous storytelling of Infernal Affairs, Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) have beefed up the story, making its characters more vivid and using the colorful world of Boston organized crime as its backdrop. Leonardo DiCaprio is Billy Costigan, the newly graduated police cadet whose family has a checkered past. He is recruited by the walking good cop/bad cop team of Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), the men in charge of running the undercover unit. They want Billy to use his shady pedigree to infiltrate the crew of crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Only they will know of his true mission; to everyone else, he will be a criminal.
Of course, what they don't yet know is that Costello has his own man inside the police department. Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, another new recruit who has worked his way up to major criminal investigations. He is in a department adjacent to Queenan's, working with Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) in above-ground operations. Pretty soon, Colin's heading up his own special unit and throwing the police off of Costello's tail. That is, until it gets too hot, and Costello demands he find out who the double agent is.
The Departed is edited, much like Infernal Affairs, so that the story jumps around in time and space. One minute you are with Billy being berated by his superiors, the next you are in the hospital with his dying mother. We are shown a step being taken by the cops to capture Costello, and then we are with the bad guys as they veer off course to evade their pursuers. No one can be trusted except for the backstabbers. We know where Billy and Colin stand, but we're never quite sure about the others. Is Ellerby on the take? Dignam? Are there other undercover cops in Costello's organization? The camera whips around, swinging back and forth between people speaking, and Scorsese has fun with jump cuts and sound cues, sometimes stopping songs in mid-note to shock the viewer out of one mood and into another. At one point, I think Scorsese is actually messing with us, chopping up a montage of Billy's early days with Costello so that a bruise on his face appears, disappears, and reappears. Time is so out of joint, such continuity doesn't matter. We're supposed to be on shaky ground. (Though, I was confused by one gaff partway through the film, when a cell phone that is on vibrate for the rest of the movie rings at a rather inopportune moment. Plot shortcut, or did I miss something?)
Amongst the few times The Departed settles down is when Billy goes to see police psychiatrist Madolyn (Vera Farmiga, Running Scared), part of the trumped-up parole for his cover story. Though he starts off by being contentious with her, when Billy is around Madolyn, he can stop and talk. She stresses the need to have an "even keel," and that's exactly what she gives him as the stress of the double life starts to drive him bonkers. Of course, for a story this curvy, Madolyn provides an added twist: she's just so happens to be Colin's girlfriend.
Scorsese also slows his roll when the scenes get tense and characters are facing off mentally. In those instances, he uses framing to keep us from getting too comfortable. When Costello is trying to see if Billy is the rat and wants to break him, his hands remain out of sight. He drops something under the table, we hear it hit the ground, and we see Costello bend and pick it up, but Scorsese withholds the object's identity until we can barely stand it any longer. Jack Nicholson is clearly having fun with this, giving Frank Costello larger-than-life mood swings reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as Butcher Bill in Gangs of New York. Though it might initially appear that Nicholson is giving it too much, the farther he goes, the more it becomes clear it's by design. No one knows if his merry prankster routine is real or if he's going crazy, and it keeps those around him on their toes the way Scorsese is keeping his audience on theirs. It's the director and actor teaming up to prank all of us. (Alec Baldwin is the only other actor who shoots for the overacting moon, and though he is fun to watch, in his case it did feel somewhat wrong for the film.)
Frank Costello enjoys opera, and Scorsese definitely kept that in mind when constructing The Departed. In the same ways Gangs of New York turned into Shakespearean drama, so does The Departed build to an operatic crescendo of violence. The results aren't pretty, but in a Scorsese film, the violence never is. There is no whitewashing here. The bad guys are really bad, and the good guys aren't so great either. Political correctness is out the window, these guys are all down in the dirt and the grime and in a sense, they are all lost souls, dead to any world that deals in niceties. When things get this filthy, there is only the option of dying for real, spilling blood or having your own spilled. The two men who are playing at being something else are forced to ask themselves if once they hide who they truly are, can they ever go back, and is the price they'll pay worth it. When you've given up life, can you return from the home of the damned? Damon and DiCaprio are both fantastic, lost in the moral grey, constantly looking over their shoulder and searching for a way out. It's a deadly business where the lines are so blurred, it's impossible to tell which side is which any longer, keeping everyone guessing right up to the very end--a finale worthy of the lengthy build-up.
The Departed is what Scorsese does best: a morality play in the world of dangerous men. From Mean Streets to Goodfellas and on, those stories form the spine for most of his classic pictures. The Departed is right in line with the best of them.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.