The Departed (2006)
Dir. Martin Scorcese
Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Martin Scorcese), Best Adapted Screenplay (William Monahan), Best Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker)
Other nominees: Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen
Boston has a rat problem. That of the vermin variety, yes, but also those of the snitch variety. Martin Scorcese’s 2006 crime drama, The Departed, depicts a Massachusetts State Police Department as crooked operators as the crime rings they try to disassemble. The film questions personal identity and its subjugation for personal desire, as told by two men working the circuit in 21st Century Boston – Billy Corrigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an undercover cop posing as a thug in a crime ring, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), and undercover thug posing as a cop on a police force. The crime operation in question is run by a Frank Costello, a walking skeleton of human trash embodied with grace and a gut by Jack Nicholson.
Frank is a Boston Irish American crime boss of yore, who in his dotage has downscaled his operation to minor heists and cocaine trafficking. He adopted Colin as his protegé during the boy’s childhood, and has primed him to be his man on the inside with the cops. Just as Colin moves up in the force, Billy moves up in Frank’s esteem. The only people who know that Billy is still on payroll are Sgts. Queegan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), and thus his only proof of legitimacy is tenuous. As the film continues, both Queegan and Costello grow more anxious to find out and snuff out their respective rats.
The film plays fast and loose with violence, profanity, and whirling stereotypes of the Boston Irish lowlife crime circuit, but, as is rarely the case in such films, it does not bask in its vulgarity, but rather justifies its depiction of these events with complex studies of this behavior. The emotional conditions of both Billy and Colin are treated with tremendous care, and both are shown to have underlying motivations for the hard work that they put in for their employers. Billy, who came from nowhere and has no family, wishes for an identity, hoping to achieve legitimacy through the pains of his actions, helping the greater good. Colin, having spent his whole life watching Costello achieve success and amass wealth, wants these things in turn: to perhaps take over the ring and claim material success (as is depicted in his desire for a luxury apartment overlooking the gleaming golden cupola of the Massachusetts State House, though it is far outside his price range). As this is Scorcese, and indeed, as this is high drama, both of these men’s ambitions are what ultimately bring them down.
The men’s parallel, or perhaps opposing, journeys form the crux of the film’s story, though it does take some detours, notably towards romances that both men have with the same woman, police shrink Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). Though these plots do further inform the men’s story arcs, Madolyn ends up a tired trope of the long-suffering girlfriend with no inner life of her own, present only to further the men’s progress towards self-realization. Farmiga is a game player who gives it her all, though not even an actress of her strength can create meaning in this vacant hole of a character, and the film never fully justifies Madolyn’s presence.
Scorcese is working at fully capacity, and the film looks and sounds terrific. He and his cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, play with light constantly, and some of their finest compositions come during sequences comparing the two men, contrasting, often in the same shot, Billy’s red with Colin’s blue. As the film progresses the scenes are more and more sapped of light, and the shots are closer, giving a more unsure and claustrophobic feel as we draw towards the film’s climax. Indeed, Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorcese’s longtime editor, has created a pattern in which the film’s opening scenes are fast and clipped, with the camera’s eye darting from gun to badge to eyes to hands of each character, but by the film’s close the edits have greatly slowed, and during climactic scenes the camera wobbles from cut to cut, as if the film is tired and its precision is waning. It’s a brilliant example from first rate artists of a film’s craft furthering the film’s story.
The film runs a bit long for my tastes, it could maybe shave 15 minutes or so, but if anything it should be celebrated for excellent artistry in its craftsmanship. In the end, it is both men’s desires – for Billy, identity, and for Colin, material gain – that prove to be their final undoing. It may not be Scorcese’s best work but it’s one of his most accessible ones, and his long-delayed Oscar for the film was richly deserved – if not for the film’s technical merits, than for for the symphony of crackles, jeers, taunts, insults, and wisdoms that he captured flowing sans cesse from the deranged and gaping mouth of Jack Nicholson.