starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg
screenplay by William Monahan
directed by Martin Scorsese
by Walter Chaw Martin Scorsese's The Departed is his funniest--and most nihilistic--film since After Hours, which remains for me the most enjoyable of his pictures, not the least for its travelogue of the Wasteland, complete with a gallery of freaks and grotesque statuary. It's a bleak, Kirkegaardian thing more oppressive as fraught cityscape than Travis Bickle's New York, seeing as how there's no filter of the unreasonable to buffer against the assertion that scum does, indeed, need to be washed off those mean streets. That city finds a doppelgänger in the blasted, depressed Boston of The Departed, whose set-pieces unfurl inside dives, abandoned warehouses, and condemned buildings, and in which we find the only relationship worth saving is between a brilliantly profane Massachusetts State Trooper Sergeant, Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), and his captain in the Special Investigations Unit, Queenan (Martin Sheen). The brutality with which that relationship is preserved, in fact, ultimately delineates this as a rare comedy (in the traditional sense) among Scorsese's long legacy of American tragedies, albeit one that's laced with poison and the unmistakable taint of a post-millennial/post-apocalyptic stench.
The Departed joins the ranks of other post-lapsarian dirges like Sin City, "Deadwood", and Michael Mann's Miami Vice, where men rebuild a fallen society from ashes and chaos according to bestial, masculine guidelines. Even the title, The Departed, refers to the soft euphemism for a corpse in Catholic burial liturgy. If Scorsese is a Joyce of our visual history, this is his The Dead. It feels like a letter from someone who's given up passing among the living. Good boy Sullivan (Matt Damon) and bad boy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) each attend the police academy, but the good family Sullivan's from is The Family run by mad Frank (Jack Nicholson) and the bad lineage from which Costigan hails is a long dead and not-long-lamented airport janitor. So Sullivan is a mole in the police for Frank, while Costigan is a mole for the cops in Frank's camp. They both love the same police counsellor, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga, in a star-making turn), and they're both suspiciously perfect for their respective rackets. There're father/son issues, of course, and issues of aspiration, and because Scorsese is our country's most conspicuous Catholic, there are a great deal of guilty mother issues, culminating in a moment where a framed portrait of the Virgin Mary is used as a weapon.
But there's none of the doomed Romanticism of the bulk of Scorsese's other films--that feeling of lost brotherhood or a romance worth dying for. And without that weight of jeopardy, the belief that there's a reason to persevere, The Departed is extraordinarily cynical. It name-checks the Patriot Act in Captain Ellerby's (Alec Baldwin) glee at being able to set up surveillance without the sticky impediment of the Constitution; and it sets up a love triangle that will serve as the catalyst for the hilarious parade of head-shots that constitutes its last half hour (and is predicted by an early moment in the Academy during a ballistics lecture). But what to make of the 149 minutes preceding that last, lingering shot of a rat sitting on a balcony? Is it the punchline to the oft-repeated warning that "this city is full of rats"?
Faith and trust is all a bad fucking joke, Scorsese suggests with The Departed. When Frank says that in the past, if he smelled an informant among his crew he'd kill the lot of them and let God sort it out, Scorsese pays it off in his Guignol finale. When Costigan complains that he's become the instrument of a mass murderer, well, sure enough, that mass murderer is Scorsese. The film is a grinning death's head--Joe Pesci's clown elevated to Jack Nicholson making a rat's face and bathed in a red filter before inviting his Nubian girlfriend to roll on a bed of cocaine until she's numb. Even with the soundtrack (silky smooth at the opening, with Frank's rise scored to The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" in the Scorsese style), Scorsese has by the tail of the second hour already begun to fuck with the rhythm, cutting his montages with harsh jumps and starts and then tossing in a grungier version of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" as his final word on the state of this insular world. Adapted from Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs trilogy by William Monahan (the screenplay is a delight--the real star of the film), The Departed is another product of a closed society hopelessly wriggling beneath the fist of a repressive regime. "You learn a lot by the way things eat," says toys in the attic Frank, "you should eat something." Find in that a filmmaker arriving at the end of some kind of rope and producing a difficult meal that goes down in a rush of extraordinarily tasty technical proficiency while leaving a genuinely vile aftertaste. It's not about emptiness, it's an example of it. It seems reductive to say it, but The Departed is the film Scorsese should have made in 2006. Originally published: October 6, 2006.