One of the main things that fascinates viewers of The Departed is its convoluted spy-versus-spy story structure. It has a plot based closely on that of the popular Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (2002) that was directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak and written by Mak and Felix Chong. William Monahan’s adaptation of this same story for The Departed won him an Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay.
The story for The Departed is set in South Boston and involves a struggle between a mobster’s gang in that area and the Massachusetts State Police (MSP). The leader of that underworld gang is Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson), but he has so far been too cagey to ever get arrested by the police. We see an early example of that caginess when the film shows how Costello has groomed a young man from his neighborhood, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), to be a mole for his gang inside the police force. Sullivan advances quickly inside the MSP and is soon accepted to join the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), which is headed by Captain George Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) and whose current main goal is to pin a rap on Costello. So a spot in the SIU is exactly where Costello has wanted Sullivan to be.
Meanwhile a student about to graduate from the MSP academy, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), is recruited by Captain Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Staff Sergeant Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to become a spy for the police inside Costello’s gang. Queenan and Dignam then appropriately doctor Costigan’s already sullied background to be suitable for him to join Costello’s outfit.
Much of the rest of the film follows the parallel, and mostly separate, narrative threads concerning the activities of the two moles. Since their identities and activities must be kept secret, the secret identities of Costigan and Sullivan are unknown to each other, as well as unknown to their colleagues on each side of the fence. When both Costello and the SIU eventually figure out that each of the contesting groups has an unknown rat informant in their ranks, it is not too surprising that both Costigan and Sullivan are then tasked with the jobs of uncovering the hidden mole (i.e. themselves) in their respective groups.
Things get even more entangled when both Sullivan and Costigan wind up talking separately to a young female police psychiatrist, Dr. Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga). And, of course, what should never happen in such circumstance, does indeed come about – Dr. Madden soon has sexual relations with both Sullivan and Costigan. This unlikely plot contrivance provides a particularly striking narrative opportunity for dwelling on one of the film’s major themes – establishing one’s true identity.
Throughout the film, we see interactions among people with hidden identities. And these veiled interactions set up opportunities for the endless double-crosses that take place in the story. One mind-blowing additional identity obfuscation is revealed when, well into the story, Costigan learns that gang leader Costello is actually an FBI informant and therefore protected.
But there are two aspects of identity – external and internal. The external is what is presented to other people, and that can be falsified for opportunistic gain. But one’s internal identity is how one sees him-or-herself, and this was a matter of deep concern for Sullivan and Costigan. In particular, Sullivan was concerned about his manhood and sexual identity. His implied impotence even leads him to unconsciously question his own sexual gender preference. Costigan, on the other hand, had a guilty conscience and was concerned about his authenticity and the control of his volatile temper.
Another theme in the film, and one that is common in Scorsese films, concerns masculinity. Of course this is probably always an issue in the criminal underworld, but it is heavily emphasized in this film. Sullivan is particularly concerned about his masculinity, and his self-doubts are starkly contrasted with the hyper-confidence of his idol, Costello, whose motto is
“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me!”
So, overall, what do we walk away with at the close of The Departed? Although, as I mentioned, the film did win many awards and success at the box office, I would still say that there are a number of weaknesses that detract from the viewing experience. I have already mentioned the aimlessness of the narrative, but there are other major problems with this production, too.
- Film Production
Unfortunately, the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus and film editing
of Thelma Schoonmakeris is pointlessly agitated, and these only serve to
distract the viewer.
The over-the-top acting, particularly on the part of Jack Nicholson (as
Frank Costello) and Mark Wahlberg (as Sean Dignam), is also distracting
for the viewer. Wahlberg is constantly exploding into epithet-filled
diatribes that almost lead us to believe his character is incapable of
normal discourse. Even worse is Nicholson’s ham acting as Costello, a
key figure in this story. It is reminiscent of his satanic
characterizations from earlier films, but it is way too exaggerated
here. On this score, critics Nick Schager and Ed Gonzalez have
commented on how Nicholson’s performance helps bring the whole film down
“Quoting James Joyce, cursing with racist glee, enjoying
cocaine-drenched interracial threesomes, and licking squashed bugs off
the palm of his hand, his [Nicholson’s] is a routine of typically
outsized Jack-ness that’s chillingly fearsome and daunting in spurts
(i.e. when his gaze remains stern and his arching eyebrows remain
lowered) but flamboyantly cartoonish in its entirety—a description that
too often also accurately applies to the alternately scintillating,
silly, and distended The Departed.”
In an expressionistic film such as this, we may expect some exaggerations beyond authentic realism, but many of the goings-on in this film are highly implausible, from both physical and psychological perspectives. I won’t itemize them here, but many situations, such as Madolyn Madden’s involvements with both Sullivan and Costigan, seem very much contrived.
Although profanity has been alluded to in the above points, its loud, incessant presence in this film almost suggests that it is also a significant theme on its own. And it’s not just the gangsters. I would think that criminals and law-enforcement people would be tougher than this and would not be constantly succumbing to adolescent temper tantrums throughout the day.
So although The Departed has some characteristic Scorsese virtues, it has enough deficiencies to bring it down a few notches. And this means that the film, despite its flamboyant production values, does not quite measure up to its inspiration, Infernal Affairs.
- Roger Ebert, “Good and evil, in each other’s masks”, RogerEbert.com, (5 July 2007).
- Manohla Dargis, “Scorsese’s Hall of Mirrors, Littered With Bloody Deceit”, The New York Times, (6 October 2006).
- “The Departed”, (A Nutshell) Review, (12 October 2006).
- Colin McCormick, “10 Greatest Quotes From The Departed”, Screen Rant, (30 January 2020).
- J. Hoberman, “Bait and Switch”, The Village Voice, (26 September 2006).
- Nick Schager and Ed Gonzalez, “DVD Review: The Departed”, Slant Magazine, (7 February 2007).
- Brian Koller, “filmsgraded.com: The Departed (2006) Grade: 55/100″, filmsgraded.com (4 April 2014).
- Dennis Schwartz, “Departed, The”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, (n.d.).
- Shane O’Neill, “The ending of The Departed explained”, Looper, (22 June 2020).