The Departed (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
Synopsis: An undercover state cop who has infiltrated an Irish gang and a mole in the police force working for the same mob race to track down and identify each other before being exposed to the enemy, after both sides realize their outfit has a rat.
The Departed marked director Martin Scorsese’s return to modern-day gangster movies after an eleven year break, and while it possesses the brutality and violent tension of earlier classics such as GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995), it also differed from his previous explorations of the gangster life by following a more linear narrative and eschewing a spoken narration. The Departed was also a rare example of Scorsese remaking someone else’s work — the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs (2003) — his only other remake being 1991’s Cape Fear. So while it might lack some of the trademark touches associated with Scorsese’s gangster pictures, it focuses very strongly on his on-going preoccupation with the role of Catholicism in the lives of his criminal characters.
The plot revolves around the lives of two young men, both of whom have created fake personas in order to infiltrate their enemy’s stronghold. Billy Costigan is an undercover cop, a member of the law-abiding branch of a family with a host of criminal contacts. These links to crime make Costigan an ideal candidate for an undercover assignment to infiltrate the criminal organisation of top-ranking mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is also a cop, a high-flier quickly climbing the promotion ladder and acquiring a position of responsibility. However, Sullivan is also the protege of Costello, and regularly uses his insider knowledge to ensure Costello remains one step ahead of the law.
As both men establish their positions within the respective organisations they each struggle to cope with the pressures that come with living a double life and the perpetual threat of discovery. This pressure is intensified as both organisations slowly come to the realisation that they each have a mole in their midst, and so both men come under an increased scrutiny which further limits their ability to function without raising suspicions. Apart from a couple of occasions when Costigan angrily harangues his superior officers for keeping him undercover for so long, Scorsese and writer William Monahan avoid having their characters directly expressing the stress they are feeling, choosing instead to communicate these stresses in other ways. Costigan pops pills with increasing frequency and small twitches and blinks betray the nerves beneath his otherwise composed exterior, while Sullivan endures chronic impotence. And all the while, both men share a feeling of their true identities being slowly and methodically erased.
As always, Di Caprio delivers a flawless performance as Billy Costigan, but it’s the clean-cut Matt Damon as hot-shot police detective Sullivan who makes more of an impression. As with his earlier turn as a psychopathic killer in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Damon uses those all-American looks to good effect, inescapably suggesting the core of rottenness that lies within the heart of the American (and, to some degree, universal) ideals. It’s much easier for the high-minded principles of the good to be exploited by the wicked, than it is for the good to escape unaffected the stains of evil.
At the core of these emotional complexities abides Scorsese’s perpetual pre-occupation with the influence of religion and, more specifically, the Catholic Church. The Departed is essentially an examination of the oldest of subjects, the battle between good and evil. Costello is evil incarnate, rejecting the church with a thrqwaway line and a shrug, ‘Church wants you in your place. Kneel, stand, kneel, stand.’ Sullivan is an altar boy who comes under Costello’s malign influence at a young, impressionable age, seduced from the path of good by rolls of bread and quarts of milk. Costigan is the force of good against the odds, the son of an honest man from a dishonest family in a milieu immersed in crime. But, of course, there’s no room for pure good in Scorsese’s view of the world, and the threat of — and ease with which — men can lose touch with the good within them is always up there on his screen for us all to see. While some might tire of Scorsese’s seeming obsession with the matter, it is just this pre-occupation which lends The Departed an extra dimension to lift it above the straightforward action thriller upon which it is based.