Reviewed by Rahul Hamid
Produced by Brad Grey, Graham King, Brad Pitt, and Martin Scorsese; directed by Martin Scorsese; written by William Monahan, Siu Fai Mak, and Felix Chong based on the motion picture Infernal Affairs (2002), directed by Andrew Lau and written by Siu Fai Mak and Felix Chong; cinematography by Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; production design by Kristi Zea; art direction by Teresa Carriker-Thayer; sets decorated by Leslie E. Rollins; costumes by Sandy Powell; original music by Howard Shore; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Vera Farmiga, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin. Color, 151 mins. A Warner Brothers release.
After all the tension of the twisting double-informer plot and fast-paced excitement of Martin Scorsese's The Departed has reached its climax, it is difficult to recall the opening shots of the film. They are thirty-year-old video images of the racial clashes over bussing and school integration in Boston. The first line spoken in the film is of a black man saying, "It puts hate into your heart," presumably commenting on the vicious white reprisals erupting across the city. It is only after this prologue that we meet Francis Costello (Jack Nicholson) through voice-over and as a black shadow in profile. In his opening lines, as we watch the violent machinations of his underworld life, Costello crystallizes the American dream by describing how the Irish and the Italians each carved out their pieces of Boston. He ends his sordid tale by commenting that, "That's what the niggers don't realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it's this: no one gives it to you. You have to take it." The blithe revision of U.S. history that this sentiment implies is not solely the braggadocio of a thuggish gangster, but an ever more common understanding of race in an increasingly apathetic yet, paradoxically, self-righteous America. In The Departed , Scorsese aims directly at this smugness and spends the rest of the film exposing the hypocrisy at the heart of Costello's opening monolog.
The Departed and Gangs of New York, mark a change in Scorsese's handling of race. In his earlier Italian-American films he portrays the brutal psychology of racism through exacting and often unflattering studies of his Italian mid-level gangsters. In these recent films, centered on the Irish experience, the director maintains some distance and takes on American race relations in a broader context. Gangs, a film about the desperate struggle for turf and what it means to be an American, culminates in the draft riots, which are, to this day, one of the worst instances of racial violence in the North. In a single, operatic-sequence shot, we see Irishmen come fresh off the boat onto the docks of New York where they are immediately conscripted into the Union Army. At the same time another boat unloads coffins fresh from the Civil War killing grounds. Strangely, both immigrant and native-born Irish do not focus their anger solely on the U.S. government. The immigrant zeal to become a part of white America and share in its promise and riches is too strong; instead they randomly attack African Americans, blaming them for the war and their wretched predicament.
The Departed starts where Gangs left off: the racial prejudice and scapegoating manifested by the riots have now been entrenched for over a hundred years and are articles of faith. The film follows parallel double agents, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who infiltrates the Massachusetts State Police, and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mole in the mob headed by Francis Costello. We follow the two men through their training as Massachusetts State Troopers and into their roles as informants. The film is an intricate cat-and-mouse game between the two, each trying to uncover the other. The two must live double lives and the film's tension is generated by a series of narrow escapes and near misses, culminating in a final violent showdown. Nicholson plays Costello as a depraved and maniacal, yet surprisingly solicitous, father figure to the two men. His opposite—both in temperament and rectitude, though equally paternal—is Captain Queenan, portayed by Martin Sheen, who has perfected such roles since playing the president in The West Wing.Further adding to the stories' parallels, Sullivan and Costigan are both involved with Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a psychiatrist working for the state.
Andrew Lau's Hong Kong gangster pic, Infernal Affairs (2002), is the basis for The Departed , which is remarkably faithful to the original's plot. Moreover, Lau's austere, clipped storytelling style—a dazzlingly swift editing scheme, punctuated by jump cuts and serial dissolves—seems to have inspired Scorsese to make some significant modifications to his own already virtuosic visual style. The films exist, however, in different cultural contexts with starkly contrasting moral universes. Infernal Affairs begins and ends with Buddhist teachings embodying the idea that one suffers and is punished for bad action. In fact, even before the punishment of a low rebirth, the present can become a living hell, with one forced to live with his or her own lies, deceits, and sins. The film, circularly structured to mirror the cycle of birth and death, is about the betrayal of old loyalties and codes, whether they are the oaths taken as a police officer or the promises made in fealty to the ancient dictates of the triads. Lau's film addresses the personal corruption of the two parallel informers and the confrontation of traditional Chinese values with an alienated, globalized, modern Hong Kong.
The Departed questions traditional values and asks whether they have ever been true. In an interview by Ed Pilkington in the October 6th, 2006 edition of the U.K. newspaper, The Guardian, Scorsese explains that the film comes out of a great deal of anger at the current situation in America. With its conniving, vicious, double-crossing characters forced into roles where they can only lie, the film is a perfect vehicle to critique the war on terror and Iraq. In trying to bring down Costello, using any underhanded technique that they can get away with, the state troopers lose any moral authority they might have had. Throughout the film, Scorsese makes explicit reference to the U.S. Patriot Act. More substantively, he and Monahan create a world where there is no honor, no fighting for principle—there is just the unscrupulous pursuit of some kind of advantage. The characters who believe in older codes of morality are either disappointed or forced to compromise.
We are introduced to Sullivan and Costigan as academy cadets, through a parallel montage sequence of their training. Sullivan over-eagerly curses at the Fire Fighter recruits during a rugby game. He desperately wants to belong and uses any means to place himself solidly in one group at the expense of another. We never see Sullivan's family. He is reinventing himself at all times, renouncing his Southie (south Boston Irish ghetto) past and aspiring to the affluent Beacon Hill neighborhood. Damon's portrayal of Sullivan is complex and richly layered. He is belligerent and cocky while also betraying a deep insecurity. The more officious he is as a policeman, the more obsequious he is as Costello's toady. He is plagued by the fear of getting caught and by occasional sexual impotence, all of which he hides behind an impassive face of cool efficiency. There is only one moment in the film where his front cracks and he becomes suicidal.
In contrast, Costigan, equally well played by DiCaprio, wears his heart on his sleeve. The pressures of his undercover mission and his dissolving sense of self have him popping pills at the edge of a breakdown. During training he is shown to be friendly with what appears to be the only black cadet in the class. He is burdened by his history and in mourning for the recent loss of his mother who was abandoned by her well-to-do family. His family connections on his father's side to low-level organized crime provide entrée to Costello's mob. He is portrayed as having always lived a double life since his parents' divorce, a working-class Irish tough on weekends and a private-school kid from the other side of Boston during the week.
Both men represent immigrant identities struggling to find a strategy for more complete assimilation. Much of the drama of The Departed is based on the idea of passing. On the most basic level, Sullivan and Costigan are passing as honest cop and gang tough, respectively. More fundamentally, the film is about lower-class characters trying to pass as higher-class ones. It is the ability to pass that endows whites with much of the unspoken privilege that the film analyzes. Contrasting portraits of matching pairs of Irish characters recur throughout the film and highlight the sense that all of the characters are embodying class and genre archetypes. The infinitely corrupt Costello—who Nicholson infuses with a maniacal evil and a world-weary melancholy—is constantly shadowed by his murderous and devoted sidekick, Frenchy (Ray Winstone), a loyal bull, incapable of his boss's cunning and duplicity. And for his part, Captain Queenan, the ideal Irish-Catholic father and self-made man of responsibility, is backed by the hilariously bellicose and forthright Sergeant Dignam, played with relish by real-life Bostonian Mark Wahlberg. The two sidekicks, like Costigan and Sullivan, also serve as surrogate sons, and all four reflect different aspects of their 'fathers.'
Just as other gangster films by various filmmakers have portrayed Italian-American life, The Departed gives us an overwhelming sense that everyone in the film is related, that bonds of common ancestry and culture supersede any newer, or perhaps more artificial, designations, like cop or criminal. Having Sullivan and Costigan unknowingly share the same woman adds to this incestuous dynamic. Sullivan sees Madolyn as a means to escape his past. She is a professional woman, not obviously ethnic, and fits into the image that he wants to create of himself. The couple's banter almost always involves some parody of their jobs and official roles. Alternatively, when Costigan and Madolyn talk, their parts are reversed, as Costigan tries to crack her professional façade by demystifying her role as a psychiatrist. He initially tries to con her for drugs to ease his ever more frayed nerves, and in some sense initiates his affair with her to further medicate himself, in an attempt to escape Costello's nightmare reality and the loss of his family. Scorsese underlines this by setting their love scene to Van Morrison's rousing rendition of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb. Madolyn too, has a double life as an assimilated career girl and Irish mother and, as such, like everyone else in the film, is forced to lie and live dishonestly.
Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker use cutting to further the sense that the lives of the characters and the world in which they live are interconnected. The film's style is a departure from their previous films' rapturous long takes that luxuriate in details of the setting and create a vivid background for the action. There are almost no establishing shots; we move from scene to scene, place to place, and plotline to plotline without any set up. Initially this establishes the parallel lives of Costigan and Sullivan. The crisp pace of these movements keeps the audience in a constant state of finding its bearings. We viscerally feel the plight of the two moles in the film, as they're constantly forced to assess and reassess their surroundings. As the film progresses the editing becomes even more radical as scenes begin to appear out of sequence. The sex scene between Costigan and Madolyn actually occurs the night before she moves in with Sullivan, but we see Madolyn and Sullivan's first day in his new apartment first. This rupture in time forces us to reassess what we have seen before and to read it with a more skeptical eye. And it foreshadows the even bigger betrayals that will follow in the film's denouement.
Although Scorsese is well known as a film buff and has always quoted other films, The Departed is unusually packed full of such references. It is as though the film represents a personal encyclopedia of cinema that traces a path from John Ford to John Woo and the Hong Kong esthetic. Not only does Scorsese faithfully recreate scenes from Infernal Affairs, he also parodies, in the porn-theater scene, the theater sequences in his own Taxi Driver and his remake of Cape Fear, making himself a part of the geneaology. And he uses these allusions—which are precisely placed within the film—to deepen our understanding of the film's characters and situations. Many reviewers have mentioned the references to the Howard Hawks and Brian De Palma versions of Scarface and the clip of Ford'sThe Informer (1935), in which Victor McLaglen's Gypo comes to a church and confesses his duplicity to the mother of the friend whom he has betrayed. He dies believing he is forgiven, but his friend will still suffer and his act is not really washed away. In The Departed we see the clip at the exact moment when Costigan discovers a critical piece of information about Costello, learning that for all of the boss's bravado and tough talk, he too is a hypocrite and a rat, even judged by his own code of honor.
Similarly, Scorsese accompanies Madolyn's discovery of Sullivan's true colors with a brief but unmistakable tribute to the shower scene in Psycho (1960), a series of quick cuts showing the showerhead from different angles as Sullivan prepares to enter the tub. It is a strange and definitively Hitchcockian moment—while we have wanted Sullivan to get his comeuppance throughout the film, at the very moment of his exposure he briefly gains our sympathy. At the same time the guilt that Madolyn has felt about her affair is suddenly allayed as she realizes that Sullivan has committed a greater sin. Meanwhile, the chase through Chinatown with Costigan and Sullivan's shadows projected large against the walls calls to mind the chase through Vienna in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), a film referenced more substantively at the funeral at the end of The Departed when Sullivan waits for Madolyn to come and speak to him. Like Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten in the earlier film she walks by him briskly, with wordless contempt after we have so anticipated their meeting.
Sullivan and Holly Martins (Cotten in The Third Man) are very similar in that they are both hopelessly naïve about American ideals. Sullivan believes in upward mobility so much that he will do anything to get it. His combination of ruthless ambition and sniveling desire to fit in and be admired brings to mind Marcello Clerici, the title character in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970). In several scenes, particularly when he orders that Queenan be followed, Damon is dressed to look like Jean-Louis Tritignant's mild-mannered and presentable fascist. Sullivan is tucked in and tight-lipped, hiding his sexual vulnerabilities. When Sullivan gets his first assignment after graduation, Scorsese introduces him in an iris shot that opens up to show him, à la Bertolucci, completely dwarfed by the massive and ugly official architecture. He walks down corridors and massive parlors in an alienated world of officialdom.
The cold, respectable face of authority is precisely what Scorsese tries to break down in The Departed. Over and over again, characters remind us that hypocrisy and violence underlie the established order—whether it is Frenchy noting that it's a "country of rats," or the Sikh shopkeeper wondering why everyone hates each other here, or Costigan noting that most of the cops join the force to "bang a nigger's head against the wall." Costello himself recognizes that a lot of people had to die for him to be in his position. Costello's character is based upon Whitey Bulger, the real-life head of the Irish Mafia in Boston. Bulger, who is still at large, is known to have many connections to the legitimate world as well as the IRA and the American criminal underworld. In real life, as in the film, the distinction between what is criminal and what is legitimate is exceedingly porous and almost impossible to distinguish.
The Departed is ultimately about this slippery slope, as is Infernal Affairs. What Scorsese and Monahan do, however, is to make this story specifically American and tailored to our current times. On one level, it comments on the dirty tactics and illegitimate evasion of civil liberties that have characterized the war on terror. It is also about the white, immigrant experience that Scorsese has chronicled throughout his career. The black cadet, Brown (Anthony Anderson), whom Costigan befriends in the film almost plays a vital role in its conclusion. He is eliminated, wordlessly and thoughtlessly, before that can happen. Scorsese's approach to race in his Italian-American films has always been to closely examine the insularity and prejudice within a particular white, ethnic enclave. Black characters live in the periphery of his films. They are marginalized by the major players within the films, but are essential in providing an understanding of his protagonists. While they are almost always minor characters, Scorsese often lingers on them.
In his first major feature, Mean Streets, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) genuinely likes the stripper played by Jeannie Bell and even asks her out, but he cannot break away enough to follow through and stands her up. Though the film, narrated by Charlie, is dictated by the logic of his interior life, the sequence ends with a close-up of the woman shuddering in the wind, waiting in vain. Greenwich Village, as well as the black, gay and Jewish characters whom the boys encounter during the course of the film, represent an escape from Little Italy, Catholicism, and the stifling white Italian world that Charlie seeks but cannot fully embrace. It is no accident that when someone scratches a swastika into a bar table and calls it a portrait of him, he concurs with the assessment. In Goodfellas, the murder of Stacks (Samuel L. Jackson), the hapless driver of one of the getaway trucks in the Lufthansa heist, is given a surprisingly large amount of screen time, considering the character's overall significance. The psychopathic Tommy (Joe Pesci) kills him in his bedroom, after perusing through his dirty-book collection, wondering—wistfully perhaps—where Stack's "bitches" have gone. The seductiveness of the forbidden embodied by African-American female characters has a counterpoint in the sexual threat posed by black males. In Taxi Driver, the camera tracks by a line of pimps in outlandish regalia as Robert De Niro's Travis describes them as a warring tribe. In the same film Scorsese himself plays a cuckolded husband, tortured by the idea that a black man has usurped his marital bed.
At the funeral and during the last scenes of The Departed, both Costigan and Sullivan are honored as heroes as sanctioned history begins to be written. Not a word is spoken about Brown. He is another of the faithful departed that are part of the story, but are written out of the official record. Brown brings The Departed full circle, back to the race riots which served as the film's introduction to Boston and which justify the final shot of the rat and the golden dome of Faneuil Hall. Scorsese's tales of Irish and Italian immigrants making it in America is really a Darwinist narrative of the violent struggle among insular ethnic groups desperately trying to capture a small sphere of influence. Crucially important is that these immigrants have the ability to assimilate into the dominant white mainstream, unlike the African Americans whose places they take.
Rahul Hamid, a Cineaste Editor, teaches film at New York University
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Copyright © 2007 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXII, No. 2