The Departed is a puzzling name for Martin Scorsese’s remake of the Hong Kong crime action movie “Infernal Affairs” (Lau and Mak, 2002). The term generally refers to dead people. As the film progresses through its two-and-a-half-hour tour of the mean streets of working-class Boston, the bodies pile up, to be sure, but in Scorsese’s world, the characters have died long before the action starts. They merely play out their own blood-soaked last rites until finally they rest beneath the ground, where they belong.
For Scorsese, being without a family or community represents the cruelest kind of death. Remember Travis Bickel (Robert DeNiro) in “Taxi Driver” (1976)? He cruised through Manhattan every night encased in his glass and steel cocoon, unable to relate to anyone or anything, until he provokes a suicidal gun battle with his perceived enemies. When real bullets fail to kill him, he puts his finger to his temple and pulls an imaginary trigger to complete the work his adversaries failed to accomplish for him. In his journal, Travis refers to himself as “God’s lonely man.” He might just as well be called God’s dead man; he was spiritually dead before he ever started driving his cab.
Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) join Travis as blood brothers in a fraternity of death. They are condemned by growing up in a gang-ridden Irish neighborhood in South Boston. In this world calling someone a “homo”—as these characters do with relentless frequency—inevitably leads to fists or worse. They want to get somewhere, but the only two paths to success for boys like them are the mob and the police. (The third option is the seminary, but Billy and Colin seem a bit too wild for that. Besides, the script by William Monahan makes a pointed reference to the sex-abuse scandals. The third option never had a chance.) Given the choice between crime and the law, they try to have both. They enter into a spiral of betrayal and deception, not only of everyone around them but, more important, of themselves. They talk a lot about loyalty to the force or the mob, but both men are out for themselves. To survive, they have to be. Yes, despite the breathless action and horrific violence, this is a film of characters, of personal disintegration that leads inexorably toward tragedy.
The story begins with Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), the local boss, buying groceries and a comic book for the young Colin. Frank runs this part of town; he buys his friends and eliminates his enemies. With his Satanic goatee and leering grin, he turns his attention from the boy to the shopkeeper’s adolescent daughter, and the father can’t do a thing to protect her. Colin looks on in admiration. Years later, when he graduates from the state police academy, he immediately receives an appointment as a detective with the organized crime unit. Frank has used his political connections to arrange for his protégé to serve as his personal mole within the department. Through Colin, he learns of raids and stings before they go down, and continues his operations without outside interference. For his part, Colin tries to balance his need for career advancement with his commitment to Costello. It takes time for him to realize that he can’t have both.
Billy Costigan enters the academy in the same class. He comes from a troubled background in Southie. Despite his violent temper, he is determined to rise above his family tradition of crime and make a life for himself. With his inside knowledge of the territory, he makes the ideal candidate to go undercover for the organized crime unit. It works as planned. After Billy does a job on two Italian mobsters from Providence who move into the territory, Costello sees this young hothead as a welcome new muscle for his operations. Billy adapts to his role, despising Costello, the police and himself more intensely with each new crime and betrayal. He wants out, but neither Costello nor the state police will let that happen.
Colin leads a charmed life, while Billy leads the loser’s. With his well-tailored suit and political connections, Colin breezes through his interview with the organized crime unit as though he were visiting royalty, as in fact he is in this kingdom of corruption. He is escorted to his private office at headquarters and immediately takes a spacious apartment with its splendid view of Beacon Hill and the gilded dome of the state capitol building. In contrast, during his interview Billy squirms as the detectives dredge up his family’s criminal connections and shout obscenities at him as though he were a street punk, as in fact he is. He has no alternative but to take it and do as they say. He returns to the streets and submerges into the world he was trying to escape. Neither man is comfortable where he is, and both know they are impersonating other people.
Even though both are supposedly working to break Costello’s hold on a part of the city, neither man knows the other exists. Their worlds intersect only through Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a police psychologist. After his arranged “dismissal” from the police academy, Billy has to see her about his temper. The interview turns into an argument, but Billy still manages to charm a prescription for Valium out of her. Colin has even better luck. A flirtation in an elevator leads to dinner and eventually to her moving in to his luxury apartment. She is attracted to both men, but without any indication of the double life each leads.
Scorsese refuses to pass judgment on any of his criminals. Their actions carry their own indictments. Better than anyone else now directing, Scorsese lets his audience relate to the characters as human beings caught in horrible, self-destructive webs of their own spinning. He allows us to ache with pity for odious sociopaths like Travis Bickel or Jake LaMotta from “Raging Bull” (1980). They are terribly unhappy people who have no one to help them because they have systematically cut human relationships out of their lives. What could be more terrible for anyone, even a treacherous, lowlife criminal?
Great acting makes these conflicted people convincing, and Scorsese gets great performances in “The Departed.” At the center is Leonardo DiCaprio, who makes the complex, street-smart Billy vulnerable and to a certain extent sympathetic. Even with his boyish good looks, DiCaprio looks tired well beyond his years. He makes his fleeting interlude with Madolyn seem believable. We hate what he has become as much as he does. Matt Damon presents the smooth surface of any well-tailored, upwardly mobile young professional. At times he seems to believe in his new identity and has to remind himself that he is a criminal rather than an investment broker buying drinks for his friends at the Ritz Carlton bar. Vera Farmiga’s Madolyn wants what she wants, but for all her psychology, she cannot even imagine the duplicity of the men in her life. She talks tough, but from the outset we know she is fragile and that she is headed for a fall she may not be able to survive. Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin are higher ranking officers, but as they spew a constant patter of obscenity, we wonder if their street tactics don’t make them little better than the criminals they pursue and sometimes collaborate with.
Jack Nicholson, however, nearly wrecks the film. He sinks into his characteristic drawl, rolls his eyes, grins and curls his lips as though he were still playing the devil in “Witches of Eastwick” (1987) or the maniac in “The Shining” (1980). In fact, he is not playing Frank Costello, Boston mobster, but rather Jack Nicholson, Hollywood movie star. He is patently miscast. Scorsese has a track record of films that critics love and audiences shun. The producers at Warner Bros. probably jumped at the chance to have a bankable star on the marquee, but once they landed him, not even Scorsese could control him. Fortunately, he slips from center stage into the background for the greater part of the narrative and lets Damon and DiCaprio make the film a first-rate thriller.
William Monahan’s script captures the Irish gift for wordplay, even if the subject of the wit oscillates between the scabrous and the scatological. Cops and mobsters alike take their language from the street, not the sacristy. Scorsese has united his favorite team of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Despite the sordid material, the film is beautiful to watch, and even at its considerable length, it moves along crisply.
“The Departed” is one step away from being a masterpiece to rank with Scorsese’s finest efforts, and that step is Jack Nicholson.