Martin Scorsese knows he’s walking through a minefield of potential cliches in his movie The Departed, so much so that the film often takes on a metafictional quality in which his characters have to justify their own actions. When Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) emerges from his stint in jail and goes to his cousin to try and work his way into the drug trade, his cousin says something along the lines of “You know what I have to ask you, it’s the thing we always have to ask in situations like these,” to which Costigan replies, “I’m not a cop.” How many times in movies have we seen scenes where an undercover cop is accused of being a cop? Hell, how many times have we experienced this ourselves? It seems that every time I’ve been in a room full of strangers where some kind of drug was pulled out, that question inevitably found its way to me, this question that is utterly useless because of how the answer will always amount to “no,” whether it’s true or not, so why bother asking? But it must be asked anyway, because that’s how these situations play out, so Scorsese has his characters wink at the audience every now and then to let us know that this really is a different movie after all.
At some points in this movie, the prevalent theme seems to be father figures, since both of our main characters are fatherless and taken under the wings of someone else: With Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), it’s a mob boss named Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), with Billy Costigan, it’s the head of the Boston undercover police division, Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen). The problem lies with each character’s connection to his father figure. We get a brief scene in the beginning where a young Colin Sullivan first meets Costello, who for some reason buys him groceries, but throughout the entire movie we’re constantly questioning Sullivan’s loyalty to the mob boss, and though that loyalty finally does cave in, there’s seemingly no reason it was there in the first place. For DiCaprio’s character, we’re given a series of flashbacks of a dying mother coupled with a vague explanation of why he’s decided to join the police, but we’re never completely sure why he decides to risk everything.
Based on the
Japanese Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs, The Departed depicts the lives of two snitches–one an undercover cop posing as a gangster, the other a gangster posing as a cop. In the middle Scorsese throws in a too-convenient love triangle, though none of the characters know the true implications of the love triangle they’re in until the very end– Costigan never figures out he’s having sex with Sullivan’s girl throughout the entire thing, in fact he never even learns her boyfriend’s name. Eventually, both the police and the gangsters figure out that there’s a rat in their midsts, and so it becomes a cat and mouse game of who gets found out first.
There are multiple layers to this movie that deserve a very long review, but unfortunately it’s very late, and since I’m having a hard time articulating my thoughts tonight anyway, we’ll move through them quickly: You can always tell that you empathize with a character when you watch him get into a pickle and share his “Oh fuck” moment, and there were times when DiCaprio’s character almost gets caught and you really do have that “Oh fuck” feeling. Matt Damon’s character however, though well acted, never gets our sympathy, mostly because we realize he could walk away from this whole thing and clean up his life. He has no real incentive to work for Nicholson, and so whenever he comes close to being caught, the audience knows he probably deserves it.
I listened to Filmspotting’s review of this movie, and even though they spent most of their review trashing the movie, they had to come around in the end and admit that they really liked it, and reading back over what I wrote, I realize that I’ve done the same exact thing. Up until now, you’d probably think that I didn’t like the movie, but such is not the case. It’s flawed, but it’s also great, and one of Scorsese’s better films, and definitely his best recent one. Even though it has some unsatisfactory twists and turns near the end, and character motivation often seems to be lacking, there’s a certain charm to everyone, and you end up liking just about every single character.
I didn’t talk about Mark Wahlberg’s performance at all during this review, so let me just end this by saying that this guy can act. I’m one of many critics who is perturbed that somebody who used to call himself Marky Mark could turn himself into the actor he is today.
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