Tribute review as today is Jack Nicholson’s 79th birthday.
THE DEPARTED, 2006
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson
Review by Surinder Singh
New recruits: Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) join the Boston State Police Department. Costigan is sent undercover to be a mole in the Irish Mafia led by fearsome mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). But Costello has a man working in the Police Department… Detective Colin Sullivan! As both Costigan and Sullivan pass information over to the opposite sides both the Mob and the Police start to realize they may have a “rat” in the house! A deadly game of hide and seek ensues with both cops and mobsters trying to flush out their informants. And as the body count raises the line between criminal and cop begins to blur because: “when you’re facing a loaded gun… what’s the difference?”
After the internationally successful Alan Mak and Wai-keung Lau thriller Infernal Affairs (2002) Hollywood decided to make one of it’s own! Remakes are by definition problematic in popular cinema. The most common problem that arises is that people find the original to be stronger making the remake pretty much obsolete. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) is a prime example of this problem, it was widely rejected despite having an accomplished director and cast behind the project. Making a movie is hard enough, but making a movie in the shadow of another that already has a strong following makes the job arguably less of a commercial risk for the backers but much more of a risk creatively for the filmmakers.
When you look at the cast sheet for The Departed you have to be impressed! Why has so much talent lined up to be in just one movie? The answer is simple… it’s a Martin Scorsese picture! Leonardo DiCaprio had already been forging a strong creative relationship with the director but The Departed welcomed a host of actors old and new onto their first Martin Scorsese film! Veterans like Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Ray Winstone take hold of their roles with a clear sense of relish, they are working with one of the greatest “actor’s directors” in Hollywood. Scorsese has always displayed a passion for screen acting in his process; understanding how important character and performance are to film drama. Scorsese is the director who famously discussed in detail with De Niro how the character Travis Bickle would tie a knot in Taxi Driver (1976) and with The Departed he delivers a master class in how to direct an ensemble cast.
Nicholson’s Costello opens the movie with a reverent voice-over that clearly states his worldview. One can instantly see Costello’s kinship with the Scorsese mobsters of Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Like many other film fanatics I had been waiting feverishly for Nicholson and Scorsese to get together and Costello is the right character for the collaboration! A father figure to both Costigan and Sullivan, Costello repeatedly reminds both men of his threat: “Don’t disappoint me on this or some other guy will be putting their fat cock up little Miss Freud’s ass.” Nicholson spruces up every line with devilish style that quite literally allows him to get away with murder! Nicholson fits perfectly into a Scorsese movie and let’s face it, it’s hard to go wrong when you cast Jack Nicholson!
As opponents, Damon and DiCaprio are nothing short of remarkable on screen. Taking into account the acting royalty that surrounds them; both actors (the operative word) are always the most compelling characters on screen. DiCaprio really shines in his scenes with police shrink (and mutual love interest) Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). Acting as the emotional go-between of Costigan and Sullivan she is the one person we see the hard-faced Costigan open up to. DiCaprio gradually peals back Costigan’s tough outer layers showing us how vulnerable he really is. He has to play the tough gangster when undercover, but inside Costigan is fragile and very lonely. It’s clear to see why DiCaprio has worked so hard at building a creative partnership with Scorsese as this allows him the best possible working environment to advance further in his career as a screen actor.
Then, there’s Matt Damon’s Sullivan. Perhaps the least glamorous role in the movie: a smug, impotent cop that’s betraying everyone in his life. Sullivan could quite easily be off putting to an audience. It’s a testament to Matt Damon’s ability that he makes Sullivan an entertaining not to mention compelling character to watch. Damon plays Sullivan’s all-important smarts magnificently, he shows us that Sullivan is a person that is well aware of his strengths and gets a real kick out of being able to outsmart those around him: “Just trust me Frank. Hey, it fucking involves lying and I’m pretty fucking good at that. Right?” Damon is an actor who can play opposite any other actor and hold his own. His scenes with heavyweights like Baldwin and Nicholson show what an assured and controlled actor he is.
Martin Sheen plays the honest Captain Queenan with a near saintly good nature. He’s the centre of justice and morality that constantly reminds us what a cop should be like. Baldwin plays up to type as Captain Ellerby, there’s something instantly commanding about Baldwin when he walks onto screen as the boss of the operation. But the real star in the supporting cast is Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). The script gives Wahlberg some real gems to work with, his cynical and unconventional approach to his work are brilliant: “If you had an idea of what we do, we would not be good at what we do, now would we? We would be cunts. Are you calling us cunts?” Like Queenan, Dignam is a rare breed that’s incorruptible to the end. You have to admire Wahlberg’s ability with the material although having grown up in Boston he was able to use his real-life background to inform the role and play Dignam with authenticity.
The Departed moves at an exciting pace with plenty of action and suspense to validate its one hundred and fifty one minute running time. While Scorsese is famed for his personal approach to the cinema, he does deliver the goods when making straightforward genre pieces like this. Take the scene where Costigan follows Sullivan out of the cinema to get a visual identification. Scorsese constructs a wonderful chase sequence with added brains as both men use their senses and smarts with equal measure. The scene is pure cinema: a story told in images and not merely dropped into the film to avoid audience boredom. Rather, it’s an integral part of Costigan and Sullivan closing in on each other. Both men are within an inch of making each other that puts us on the edge of our seat!
It’s worth noting that The Departed was the film that finally gave Scorsese the Best Picture and Best Director Oscar. Many still believe that the Oscar should have been given to Goodfellas (a film that single handedly defined nineties Hollywood cinema) and/or for his work in the seventies. But if you look closely at The Departed there are a great many references to his past work. To use music as an analogy, if Scorsese’s earlier works were the “great albums” containing the peak of his talent, then The Departed is like the ‘Greatest Hits’ album of his career that revisits all his best songs. In The Departed we see many references to Scorsese’s past films: the young boy aspiring to be like the neighborhood gangster and then being recruited by him (Goodfellas). The scene in the porno theatre: a clear nod to Taxi Driver. Costigan’s initiation into the gang by way of a fight in the bar: Gangs of New York (2002) and of course the (unspoken) connection Sullivan has to the Catholic Church which brings to mind Mean Streets (1973)… to name just a few.
In the end, the more I watch the movie (and it does demand more than one viewing) the more I appreciate what I love about so much about Scorsese movies: the humor. Tarantino once commented that if you were to listen to the sound of an audience watching Raging Bull (1980) you might think they were watching a comedy! The Departed does contain tragedy and brutal violence all of which is not funny, however around the corner from violence and conflict you can normally find humor. The little comic routines run thick and fast as relief from the more intense parts of the movie. Take the comic routine between Baldwin and Wahlberg:
Ellerby: Go fuck yourself!
Dignam: I’m tired from fucking your wife.
Ellerby: How is your mother?
Dignam: Good, she’s tired from fucking my father.
The Departed is nothing short of a great movie. A piece of work that celebrates some of Hollywood’s best filmmakers (meaning everyone who worked on the film) and is a testament to one of the greatest directors ever to work in Hollywood… see it, see it again and again and again!