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Saturday, July 16, 2016

21st Century Essentials: The Departed (2006)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
Country: USA

There's a school of thought that Martin Scorsese's long-awaited Oscar win for Best Director for The Departed was somehow a "make up" Oscar, that after decades spent giving other directors the big prize, the Academy finally gave in and threw Scorsese a bone for a genre piece that, in a more competitive year, might not have even gotten a nomination. To me, that notion is ludicrous on multiple levels. While it's certainly true that Scorsese should have had a Best Director Oscar before 2006, he should have Oscars for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas in addition to one for The Departed, not instead of one for The Departed. And thinking of The Departed as "just" a genre piece is pretty reductive. It might not wear its artistic ambitions like a sash, the way that seemingly more awards friendly films like Gangs of New York and The Aviator do, but The Departed is a masterpiece, a film of clockwork plotting, crackling tension, and grand vision that sees the characters as both individuals and as pieces of something much bigger, a collective. The Departed is one of Scorsese's many great triumphs.

This is the story of two men who aren't what they seem. The first is Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who has been raised under the wing of mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and groomed to become his mole inside law enforcement, where he quickly rises through the ranks of the Massachusetts State Police. The second is Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), raised dividing his time between the upper class world of his mother and the working class world of his father, who chooses to become a police officer even though he has the aptitude to be anything. Before he's even graduated from the Police Academy, his potential is singled out by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), who recruit him to become an undercover operative. While Costigan finds his way to Costello's crew, using the ties of his father's family to organized crime to get his foot in the door, Sullivan continues to rise in law enforcement and when it becomes apparent that there's a mole on the inside, he's assigned to head the investigation, which also brings him one step closer to being able to figure out who the mole is inside the mob. Meanwhile, Costigan is starting to crack from the pressures of being so deep undercover, but finds some small relief in a budding relationship with Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a police psychiatrist who is also involved with Sullivan. As the years pass, Sullivan and Costigan are on a collision course not only with each other, but within themselves as the struggle between the men they have to be and the men they want to be intensifies.

Although a remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs, the story that The Departed tells feels quintessentially American. It's a story about ambition and power, one which emphasizes the clannish devotion created ethnic identity or identification with a neighborhood (or a city, a state, a country), but which also emphasizes the fierce need for individuality. It's not just a sense of identity that's important - although that is important and becomes increasingly so as both Sullivan and Costigan find themselves further and further down the rabbit hole - but of individuality, of standing out from the crowd, rising to the top, dominating. "I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me." These are the words which open the film, in a monologue which ends with Costello advising, "No one gives it to you, you have to take it." It's a mission statement that defines the story. The promise of America is that no matter who you are or where you're from, you can rise and you can achieve if you work for it, and The Departed is nothing if not a story of men striving to achieve and letting nothing, including the rules, stand in their way. Costello wants to own the city, to be the dominant force that subdues all other comers, and he's willing to do that not only through the brutal consolidation of his power, but by becoming the thing he's supposed to despise - an informant - in order to protect his own interests (not the interests of his organization, but purely to protect himself). Sullivan hitches his wagon to Costello's star but, when it comes down to it, his loyalty is not to Costello, but to his own ambition, to what he sees for himself when he gazes at the state house from his window, and he'll do and become whatever he has to in order to get there. Costigan wants to honor the memory of his parents by being his own man, repudiating the money and social standing of his mother's family and intending to repudiate (as his father did) his father's family's connections to crime by becoming a cop. To be a cop, Costigan has to pretend to be a criminal and proves to be so good at it that, in the end, he no longer even wants to be a cop; all he wants is to be a man, rather than a cog in the machine of either the mob or the law.

The Departed looks like a straight up crime thriller, offering many of the expected pleasures of the genre, including a tense cat and mouse sequence in which Costigan tails Sullivan but never quite gets close enough to get a look at him in order to identify him as the mole inside the police and, in turn, Sullivan realizes that he's being followed but his attempt to get the jump on Costigan fails, so that he isn't able to discover the identity of the mole inside Costello's organization; but it's more than that, using genre trappings to tell a story that casts a much wider net. It's an inherently compelling story about ambition and corruption, about circumstances where the line between "good" and "bad" are so blurred as to be non-existent, with the supposed good guys masquerading as bad guys, the bad guys masquerading as good guys, and even the finale finding one of the unambiguously good guys (at least from the perspective of the side of the law he's on) doing something bad for a reason that is (arguably) good. When Costello says, "We can become cops or criminals... when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" there's a truth to that, a tragedy to it that almost reaches the level of Shakespeare of Greek tragedy. For all their striving, all their attempts to make sure they're on the team that "wins," in the end all there is is death, (almost) all the players literally marked for it even as they try desperately to save their own skin, desperately grasping at some way that they can come out on top or, at the very least, alive.

Scorsese is no stranger to depicting violence on film and The Departed is a very bloody, brutal movie in addition to being a darkly funny one. There's more laughs in any scene involving Wahlberg's foul-mouthed Dignam and/or Alec Baldwin's Captain Ellerby than you'll find in many actual comedies, bringing with them slight rushes of relief from the pressures and heaviness of the rest of the film. Of all the actors in the film, only Wahlberg would end up with an Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor), but The Departed is truly an ensemble piece in which everyone brings their A-game. Sheen delivers the film's most understated and quiet performance as Queenan, who wants to bring Costello down in a way that will stick, even if it means sitting by and letting certain crimes slide, and who doesn't realize until it's too late that he's been wearing blinders; Nicholson is sinister and calculated in what may very well have been his last great role (since this film, he's only made two more, 2007's The Bucket List and 2010's How Do You Know); and Farmiga does more than should be possible with the thankless role of a woman whose coincidental relationships with both Sullivan and Costigan end up being the only part of the film that feels just a little bit false, a little too easy. And then there's DiCaprio and Damon, each delivering tremendous performances as men pretending to be something they're not and losing the thread of their identity in the process of having to spend every moment of every day having to look over their shoulders. In the end both are broken and any triumph that either one may feel is only fleeting. Each is as complicated, complex, and compelling as Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and Henry Hill, and The Departed is as much an instant-classic as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. The Departed isn't "lesser" Scorsese; it's Scorsese through and through, and it's easily one of the best films of the last 16 years.

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