Police And Thieves
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Next up is 2006’s police drama The Departed reviewed by Andrew Colman…
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Matt Damon, Leonardo Di Caprio, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone
There’s a scene about a third of the way into this film where mob lynchpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) starts waving around a severed hand at undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is sitting opposite him in his gang’s watering hole. He starts declaiming something that barely makes any sense about his position in life and proceeds to remove a ring from one of the hand’s fingers, no doubt to bait Costigan and by extension the audience. Frank is the ultimate badass in a film so loaded with badassery that it skates somewhat close to parody but does get away with it – enough so that the Academy bestowed it with three of the big five Oscars – Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. This is an award-winning movie all right, but it is hokum – high quality, elaborately rendered and thoroughly entertaining hokum, but hokum all the same.
The Departed isn’t lacking thematically in its milieu – the Boston underworld, ruled by Costello, and Bean Town’s police department are both heavily underpinned (as one would expect) by the Irish, I mean Irish-American, experience. Scorsese’s use of motifs don’t differ that much between Little Italy and South Boston, but what is evident are the tribal ties that bind and define the protagonists’ identities. Matt Damon’s Colin Sullivan is inducted into Costello’s netherworld at an early age, and is groomed from thereon to have one function – to be a mole inside the Massachusetts State Police department (talk about playing the long game). His opposite number Costigan, who trained at the same police academy, is refused official membership of the “Statees” due to his father’s links to organised crime, and, in the face of extreme pressure from department chief Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his ultra-abrasive assistant Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), consents to infiltrate Costello’s gang and become an informant. Both Sullivan and Costigan have an affair with Dr. Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), a police psychiatrist who is the key humanising force in the film. After the second reel, the two men learn of each other’s roles, and after an extensive game of cat and mouse and a lot of dead bodies, the narrative is set for the pair to eventually meet.
William Monahan’s script throughout is never understated, and rarely pauses for breath – virtually all of the characters are various shades of aggressive venality, their speech peppered with particularly colourful and sophomoric expletives (especially Wahlberg’s hyperactively obnoxious Dignam). The principals and minor players are all guarded and hugely distrustful, the state police’s office and the mob’s hideout mirroring the constant perfidy in each other. Only Farmiga’s Madden brings sympathy to the table, her boundless lack of selfism entirely at odds with everything else in the film. What keeps the ball rolling however is neither the themes nor the generally excellent acting, but the intrigue and logistically intricate plotting – there’s no shortage of suspense, which is the best thing about this particular Scorsese flick. The premise of both men pretending to be somebody else while hunting one another, an idea taken (along with much else) from the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, is certainly engrossing, if rather unwieldy.
Apart from the general pulpiness of the project, and paucity of genuine drama (this may be a Scorsese work, but it’s still genre) what lets the film down is the casting of Jack Nicholson. He had played a gangster once before, in Prizzi’s Honor, his performance as hit man Charley Partanna a portrait of stylised cartoon dopiness that nevertheless worked, due to his restrained and sombre take on the character. In The Departed, Nicholson’s one collaboration with Scorsese, it appears that the director failed to contain Nicholson’s late-career bug-eyed excesses. He’s meant to be a father-figure (of sorts, at least to Sullivan) but he rambles like a lunatic throughout, waffling smugly and unintelligibly. Ray Winstone’s casting is also baffling, although he does at least look the part. Again, his dialect coach didn’t prevent him from mumbling most of his lines incomprehensibly. When both meet their maker, the only thing that registers is that we are at endgame.
As far as the rest of the ensemble are concerned, there is no doubt that DiCaprio, who had been problematic for many in the previous two Scorsese features he starred in (Gangs of New York and The Aviator) is superb this time. He is thoroughly convincing as the intensely conflicted, vulnerable and lost Costigan, in what is one of his best and most nuanced performances. Matt Damon, cast against type, is excellent as well, in what is a subtle and quite sinister turn, as is Mark Wahlberg’s ball of energy effort. But it is Vera Farmiga’s tremendous work that adds the necessary depth to what is an amplified and labyrinthine police procedural. All the psychological drama is channelled and ends with her.
The Departed is a typically epic treatise on a marginalised crime subculture by Scorsese that is rarely touched upon in movies – the Murphia and its tentacled influence on a city’s community at large. As in 1990’s similarly themed State of Grace, Costello’s crew come across as doomed and sloppy amateurs, trapped by a code of false honour – although this theme is never focused on. And beyond the ingenious plotting and themes of isolation and determinism, Scorsese is mining very familiar territory here. That said, it is another slickly professional entry with the usual keen eye for detail, with a noir undertone that does stay with you. For all my misgivings, a Scorsese movie that appears to be genre–bound is still worthy of plaudits, and obviously the Oscar committee agreed. Critics may have averred that the awards garnered were more for past work than this one, which is true, but that’s only because we expect so much from our favourite auteur.
Here’s the film’s trailer
Here’s the other Month Of Marty reviews so far as well
And here’s our review of The Irishman from last year too