Rats are important in The Departed. The presence of rats—human rats, informers, undercover men—in the Boston Police Department and in the gang of mobster Frank Costello, is crucial to the film’s plot. They are ratting out the plots and plans of the people they pretend to work with. Human rats in a larger sense—rats who cheat on one another, who plot and connive and deceive, who steal and kill, who feel jealousy and ambition, who are easily corrupted by the lure of money and power and ambition in any combination—are everywhere apparent in this film, which has been hailed as a return to classic form for director Scorsese.
The Departed doesn’t really expand or reinvent the Scorsese formula so much as it provides a kind of update. The venue is Irish Catholic Boston rather than Italian New York. We see clergymen, policemen, and mobsters, most of them of Irish ancestry. The film gives a sense of the cultural context of Irish Boston, but its real focus is the story of intrigue, deception, and labyrinthine plot twists. The plot concerns the efforts of the Boston Police to build a case against the mobster Frank Costello (other than his name, he has no connection to the real Costello). It also follows the ascending careers of two young Irish Catholic detectives, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, both connected in different ways to Costello, who sees himself as a kind of father figure to these and other protégés. In ways this film is predictable, but it is so well acted and written that following these characters and the twisting and turning plot to their ultimate conclusions is wholly satisfying.
DiCaprio portrayed a lead character in The Gangs of New York and starred as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. He also plays a lead role as undercover detective Billy Costigan in The Departed. This may be DiCaprio’s best performance in any film. It’s nuanced, powerful, understated, and convincing. But there are plenty of other good performances, from Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin as Boston detectives to Ray Winstone and, of course, Jack Nicholson as gang members. Nicholson plays Costello. He’s great in the role, though it’s one he has played on and off throughout his career. Nicholson has some of the best lines in the film, which is full of good lines, many of them clearly written with Nicholson in mind, though Mark Wahlberg as director of the undercover division has his share of good lines as well. My favorite Nicholson line: “I don't wanna be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”
Martin Scorsese has a dark view of human nature. He believes with a vengeance in Original Sin. His Roman Catholic upbringing (as a young man he considered the priesthood) is a powerful presence in his work. He’s like a latter-day version of Jonathan Edwards melded to Jean Paul Sartre and Cormac McCarthy. Nearly every character in The Departed is corrupt or inept or both. Even the virtuous come to bad ends. As in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, there is redemption through violence, though in this film so many have died when the credits begin to roll (they are all among “the departed) that redemption hardly seems worth the effort. Redemption in Scorsese’s film is not salvation but purgation of sin and moral recrimination.
There are a few loose ends in The Departed. One example occurs towards the end, when an undercover cop about to go into hiding gives a psychologist a mysterious envelope that she is to open only if he calls and says that he needs it. We never learn the nature of the envelope. Another example concerns one of the lead detectives. Although he is actually working undercover for Costello, who has paid his way through the police academy and has a long history with him, background checks and other security measures never reveal the link. This is difficult to believe. In general, however, the intricately convoluted storyline is one of the strongest elements in the film, along with the acting.
Scorsese’s reputation as one of the major filmmakers of the last forty years mainly rests on a series of films that began with Mean Streets in 1973 and continued with Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Good Fellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Casino (1995), and Gangs of New York (2002). In one sense or another these are all crime films in which violence is a fundamental force. Along the way there have been notable forays in other directions: the musical New York, New York, with Robert DeNiro in 1977; The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Age of Innocence (1993), based on the Edith Wharton novel, and the dramatized biography of the Dalai Lama, Kundun (1997). He’s also made a name for himself through widely regarded musical documentaries such as The Last Waltz in 1978 and recent films about the American blues and the early career of Bob Dylan (he has even directed Michael Jackson music videos). But Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and (now) The Departed are the kind of films we associate with the Scorsese name.
These films share in common such characteristics as detailed portraitures of hard-bitten characters (usually Italian), vivid evocations of ethnic urban landscapes, a deep belief in the corruptibility of human nature, and the notion that violence can be redemptive. Violence in his films is precisely and artfully orchestrated: it’s powerful and sudden and brutal. Unlike Peckinpah, Scorsese never shows violence as beautiful—it’s always shocking and terrible. His skill in portraying these scenes is unquestionable. He is an excellent filmmaker—the editing in The Departed is superb and contributes directly to the power of the film. Scorsese’s technical expertise at setting up and portraying violence has much to do with his success and reputation as a director. In films without violence, such as The Aviator, Scorsese’s distinctive style is less evident.
If violence is the distinguishing condition of humanity, of modern America, and if Scorsese seeks in his best films to discover its power and corrosive and destructive force, it’s also one of the elements that makes him the filmmaker he is. Without violence, where would Scorsese be?
At the end of this film, we learn that Madelyn, a police psychologist and fiancé of one of the detectives, is pregnant. We assume the father is the detective she was planning to marry, but there is a possibility, clearly suggested by a scene in the film, that someone else may be the father. The possibility is important. This unborn child may be the survivor, but in the world of The Departed, surviving has questionable value.
The cops and criminals in this film are a well read bunch. They refer to Hawthorne, Shakespeare, and others. They talk a lot about human nature and the mistakes they have made and what they’ve learned. They all have a philosophical dimension. Costello may be the most introspective of them all.