Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin

MPAA Rating: R (for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material)

Running Time: 2:32

Release Date: 10/6/06

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Review by Mark Dujsik

As far as Hollywood thrillers over the past five years or so go, The Departed is without equal. On its own merits, the film is a brilliantly succinct piece of storytelling from one of the American masters. Director Martin Scorsese forgoes any kind of visual flair and focuses entirely on the basics. Great stories are derived from certain elements: character development, dialogue, sense of setting, and, I will argue, a good conceit within the plot. Screenwriter William Monahan, working off of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (released two years ago in the US) and the actual story of FBI ties to the Irish Mafia in Boston, provides Scorsese with all of these elements and even brings the material to the level of a modern morality play. The characters here are defined by their actions and speak the lingo of the hardened lifestyle of their Boston surroundings. As for a conceit, Monahan has a great one from Alan Mak and Felix Chong's screenplay for Infernal Affairs in the form of two opposing moles—a cop undercover in the mob and a mobster undercover in the police. Scorsese and Monahan take the gimmick and flesh it out, exploring personal turmoil, exposing double and triple crosses, and exploding expectations for those who have seen the original film. The result is like a sucker punch to the gut, and I do mean that as a compliment.

As far back as he can remember, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) always wanted to be a gangster. He certainly had no problem working for mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) to pick up some money on the side as a young man. Now, he's recently graduated from the police academy and quickly moves up the ranks to a special investigator's job with the Massachusetts State Police. He's also still working for Costello as a mole. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is also a member of the academy, but he actually wants to be a real cop. Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his right-hand man Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) run an undercover unit within the State Police hell-bent on bringing Costello down. For Costigan to become part of this, he has to serve jail time to prove he's a "legit" criminal and move his way into Costello's inner circle. As both men move up in their respective ranks, they and their bosses begin to suspect the presence of a rat within their organization. Since Sullivan and Costigan have an in within their rival groups, they are assigned the task of discovering the identity of each other. Of course, there's a girl too, and Costigan and Sullivan become professionally and personally involved with the same psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga).

While certainly a convoluted premise, it is one ripe with potential for layers, and the script has them. Monahan focuses primarily on the plots twists and turns and the effect those have on the central characters' psyches. There are plenty of surprises here (even those who have seen the original will find shocks), and the level of backstabbing increases exponentially as the story progresses. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker are undaunted by the stacking up of betrayals, cutting the story with confidence and clarity. As everything piles on top of our hero and antihero, paranoia sets in, and it seems no small detail when Sullivan's boss Ellerby (played with great gusto by Alec Baldwin) mentions his love for the Patriot Act. The film is in part a timely parable of our current worldview, dominated by paranoia and calling for citizens to rat out other potentially suspicious citizens. On a more character-specific level, though, the question of how far they will go remains. Both men have moments in which they doubt their roles, but at a certain point, there's no turning back. Costello opens the film with an appropriate musing: "I don't want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me." Everyone becomes a product of their environment to some extent, so when you produce an environment of corruption, there is no escape.

So we do have a moral backdrop to the proceedings, primarily concentrated on that old adage of reaping what you sow. The theme of duality is clear, and Scorsese throws in a defining image of Costigan's shattered reflection while hunting Sullivan down the rainy streets of Boston. Playing against the film's solemn undertones is a macabre sense of humor. Costello ponders how the body of a woman he executes falls in a strange way and later emerges from the back room of a bar, covered in blood, completely oblivious to his appearance, and orders a mop in back. There's also a seemingly out of place discussion of the effects of a hollow-point slug to the head, the existence of which becomes crystal clear by the film's conclusion. The script plays with conventions as well. Ellerby briefs his men on a sting against Costello and basically defines the microprocessors involved in the deal as MacGuffin in the process. In one of the movie's various climaxes, one character blows off the idea of being like a son to another character as sentimental drivel. This is also possibly the first film to successfully incorporate modern cell phone technology (e.g., text messaging, caller ID, etc.) into the narrative without it becoming an annoyance.

Monahan's command of dialogue helps breathe much life into the proceedings. The best and most fitting description of the dialogue is to call it Mamet-like, and for those who know of my admiration for playwright, that is the highest of high praise. Monahan understands the way people talk and stylizes it to great effect, and the actors relish in it. Beyond the actors' grasp of the dialogue and the Boston dialect that accompanies it, the film is an ensemble piece all the way. Scorsese is a great actor's director, obtaining terrific performances from his cast. Mark Wahlberg is an insulting, imposing force as Dignam, treating every person with equal contempt that we know he's on the level. Martin Sheen provides a fatherly and solid foundation of integrity to counteract the rampant corruption, and Jack Nicholson is formidably evil but with slight hints of physical and mental frailty developed over the decades. Matt Damon's overachieving louse is one formed by old-fashioned, American desire to better oneself and overcompensation. He's no monster, and there's a certain level of sympathy for his tragic turn. Leonardo DiCaprio has proven himself at taking risks in his performances over the past few years, and here is no exception. His Costigan is at battle between doing his duty while directly confronting his own fears of following familial paths to crime.

Even though Costigan becomes our obvious hero, it's interesting to note that Monahan and Scorsese frame the film as Sullivan's story, starting with his childhood move into the underworld and ending the story on his fate. The forced focus leaves a little more room for interpretation as to the film's intentions, and The Departed is also open for interpretation in a few key events during the story's multiple climaxes. There's a certain sense of ambiguity left in the end, and acute viewers will piece together their own readings of events off-screen. This is certainly a film worthy of repeat viewings (I have not even mentioned, let alone discussed, in this review the implications of the love story), and having seen it twice already, I can say it feels as much like a gut-punch the second time around.

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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