It’s only been 10 years since Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was released, but sometimes it seems forgotten in the cultural annals of cinephiles. Despite being named the best film of the year by the Academy and the first Best Director Oscar for one of the all time great auteurs, no one seems to talk about it anymore. Hell, it lands on the IMDb top 250 list at #43 [this was a legitimate surprise to me], but who would consider it one of Scrosese’s best films?—we all know this is a flawed system, but it ranks above Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, let alone Apocalypse Now and Dr. Strangelove. Maybe I’m wrong, but the only time I ever hear the film brought up it has something to do with the less-than-stellar Boston accents across the cast, a weird [and not in a good way] Jack Nicholson performance, or the batshit crazy [mileage may vary if this is in a good way] finale. With this reputation, I don’t think you’ll ever see it on any specific pantheon in the years to come.
I first saw The Departed in college some time after it was released on DVD. Though I was a film student, I didn’t see a lot of recent films [I can count the number of movies I saw in theaters during my four years on two hands; for some unknown reason, most of them were bad horror sequels like The Ring 2 and Saw 2]. I can’t remember why I decided to rent The Departed, as most of my visits to That's Rentertainment ended in South Korean genre films or the undeniable classics, but I watched it in my dorm room off my small computer monitor late on some random weekend night. And honestly, I didn’t retain much of it. I was as in need of a review as seemingly everyone else.
Adapted from Andy Lau and Andrew Mak’s 2002 Hong Kong actioner Infernal Affairs [which will be getting the Related Review treatment this week], The Departed is transported to Boston, in a world where the lines between the police and the mob are greatly obscured—in the words of mob boss Frank Costello [paraphrased], when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference between a cop and a criminal?
In hindsight, the most important aspect of The Departed is the convergence of two of our biggest movie stars: Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio. One could make the argument that each actor was at the height of their stardom up to that point---Damon was fresh off the first two films in the Bourne and Ocean’s franchises and DiCaprio received his first Best Actor nomination the year before for The Aviator, arguably the moment that solidified him as a serious [and grown-up] film star.
The film uses both actors in their proper roles, setting them apart at opposing poles of the criminal/cop spectrum. Though DiCaprio is the “good guy,” he gets to play the moody tough [if the role was cast today, would there be any doubt that Casey Affleck would be at least reading for the part?] while Damon is the “bad guy” who gets to be charming and charismatic. It isn’t exactly De Niro and Pacino sitting across each other in Heat, but the narrative keeping them apart until its climax is an effective game. Their first direct contact, a phone call nearly two hours into the film, is one of the film’s tensest and and most effective moments, their roles swirling around each other ready to break everything open. And oh, does it ever.
Through these two double agents, it examines both cinematic roles in interesting ways. DiCaprio’s Billy is both the quintessential low-level gangster and the hardened gumshoe—the character could fit pretty well in the 30s or 40s cinema as film noir detectives became cooler and tougher and more violent. Damon’s Colin Sullivan is more of a modern cop archetype, flawed in a deeper and more complicated way. He’s much more in the world of Bad Lieutenant or Rampart where cops actively use the power of their privilege for personal survival.
Nicholson, on the other hand, is the definite weak link in an otherwise fantastic ensemble cast. Still, reexamining his performance was worthwhile. Costello is a larger-than-life character and Nicholson is indeed going for it. The effect, though, saps out most of the film’s stakes—it is difficult to find the character suitably menacing. At times, Costello reaches near-Joker levels of wackiness with the funny voices and faces Nicholson puts on but he doesn’t have the ability to flip the switch unexpectedly, at any time. The actor brings a large and well known history of similarly unhinged characters, and I’ll admit that does bring something to the film in an interesting way. It isn’t exactly stunt casting, but I see the actor in every choice instead of being sucked into a character able to surprise me.
At around 150 minutes, The Departed is no doubt bloated, but Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing keeps it moving along quickly. With quick scenes and cut-ins, the narrative runs through time with just enough plot detail to keep its complexity. There are lulls in the film that become over-burdened by the intricate plot, but it otherwise zooms. No doubt, The Departed is an enjoyable piece of entertainment. And sure, that might be faint praise given what the film could have been. Perhaps as we examine the film throughout the week, we’ll see where it lies in the cinematic cultural conscious ten years later and beyond.
Here is what you'll see this week:
- A special First Viewing from editor John Gilpatrick, recounting the strange circumstances surrounding his first time seeing The Departed back in 2006
- A re-consideration of the 79th Academy Awards
- Related Review of Infernal Affairs
- Our very first podcast!
- And more!