Departed, The: Scorsese’s Oscar Card, All-star Ensemble

Its a pleasure to report that “The Departed,” the gritty crime-gangster drama, is Martin Scorseses best film since the 1990 The GoodFellas, to which the new film bears loose resemblance in thematic rather than stylistic terms.

After two quasi-epics, Gangs of New York and Aviator, both of which Oscar-nominated, and both flawed for different reasons, Scorsese is back on terra firma with a movie thats right up his alley, one thats linked directly not only to GoodFellas, but also to Mean Streets, back in 1973.


Aviator, The (2004): Scorsese’s Biopic of Howard Hughes Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Oscar-Winning Cate Blanchett

Like Michael Mann (who, incidentally, produced Scorseses Aviator), Scorsese is one of American cinemas strongest proponents of film noir, infusing most of his films with darkly humorous approach and quintessentially noirish themes, motifs, and visuals. Nonetheless, unlike Mann, particularly in his last, disappointing effort, Miami Vice, in which striking style triumphed over a routine narrative, Scorsese is trying to find new subjects, with varying degrees of success, to which he can apply his singular noirish paradigm.

The story of “The Departed” is vaguely based on the 2002 brilliant Hong Kong thriller, “Infernal Affairs,” which achieved great success in Asia before being released (briefly) in the U.S. in2004. The collaboration with writer William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven), an Irish-American native of Boston, proves fruitful in ways that the teaming with Paul Schrader was a generation ago in movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Monahan and Scorsese treat their movie as one inspired by Internal Affairs, rather than a remake per se.

Putting aside that films distinctive milieu, they have created a different setting–South Boston–with different actions and subplots. Monahan has judiciously expanded the scope of that movie, adding new characters, and enlarging one key role, mobster Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson), which was minor in the original saga.

Collaborating for the third time with Scorsese, after “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator,” Leonardo DiCaprio gives his first truly mature performance; its the first film in which he doesnt look boyish. Along with DiCaprio, the film stars Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga, which makes The Departed as this year’s the best-cast feature.

The story centers on two complex and morally ambiguous copes: Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio). Smart and unabashedly ambitious, Colin appears to be on the fast track of Massachusetts State Police Department. The Departments Elite Special Investigations Unit is waging an all-out war to take down the city’s cop organized crime ring from the inside–their goal is to end the reign of powerful mob boss Costello (Nicholson).

In contrast, Billy is street-smart, tough, and suffers from a violent temper that has cost him his badge and eventually lands him back on the rough streets of South Boston, where he is recruited into Costello’s ranks.

The story is about how two young men are shaped by the three major forces in their lives: the police, the crime group, and the neighborhood. In a flashback, we see Costello taking Colin as a young boy and making him into a seeming pillar of the community so he can rise up in the hierarchy of the state police. But, in reality, he is Costello’s inside man.

In contrast, Billys determination to become a police officer is rooted in his desire to escape his upbringing. Billy comes from an underworld background and has many chips stacked against him. Joining the police because he has no other options, he wants to do things differently than his family. Ironically, Billy is asked to go undercover and pretend to be the very man he was determined not to become.

Billy is the perfect material for the police to send undercover, because he comes from South Boston’s working-class element. He is put in the position to join Costello’s crew, but he has really been set up to rat on Costello.

The one main character who is neither a cop nor a criminal is also its only woman: Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a psychiatrist who specializes in dealing with troubled people on both sides of the law. In a twist of fate, Madolyn becomes another unwitting link between Colin, who she dates romantically, and Billy, the man she starts out seeing professionally.

For Billy, Madolyn is the only emotional connection he has, and the one person he can confide in, though in a limited way, because he can’t reveal anything about himself, or what he’s doing. As his counselor, Madolyn tries to help him initially, but then a stronger personal bind develops between them.

Like most of Scorseses films, The Departed is about sin, guilt, and redemption. Trying to redeem himself and not just be a product of his environment, Billy he ends up deep in a situation that’s extremely dangerous. There are moments when he could be easily caught as the “rat,” and everything begins to cave in around him.

Damon’s and DiCaprios characters are, of course, two sides of the same coin; they even hail from the same neighborhood. Colin chooses one path, and Billy chooses another, but their lives are fatefully intertwined in ways they themselves could never understand. Ultimately, running on parallel tracks, Billy and Colin must–and do– end up on a collision course.

The film gradually becomes a tense cat-and-mouse chase, based on information and misinformation, conveyed via computer and cell phones; here is one film that couldnt exist without the cellular technology (for reasons that cannot be disclosed here). However, this being a noir policier-and a quintessential Scorsese feature-neither man is what he seems to be. As they work at cross-purposes, Colin and Billy are plunged into a dangerous game in which the stakes are high, really high.

Each man becomes consumed by his double life, gathering information about the plans and counter-plans of the operation he has penetrated. But when it becomes clear to the gangsters and the police that they have a mole in their midst, Billy and Colin find themselves in constant danger of being caught and exposed to the enemy. Each must race to uncover the identity of the other man in time to save himself.

Duplicity and deceit are manifest in Scorseses film, but, thematically, borrowing from noir, The Departed is soaked with the logic of a well-constructed crime melodrama (in the positive sense of the term) and the fatalism of a tragedy, focusing on the postmodern issue of identity, namely, what constitutes identity (a fluid concept to begin with), and what happens when people depart from what they really should be doing, instead playing roles allotted to them by social agencies.

In this film, Scorsese takes the crime-gangster genre and turns it into something different, more compelling and original. The uniquely American story involves the Irish underworld, the police force and the corruption, within and without that agency, which make the tale more relevant. The film’s depiction of the characters and their attitudes toward the world, in both its public and personal domains, is uncompromising.

The production benefits from the cooperation of Thomas B. Duffy, a 30-year-vet of the Mass. State Police, who served as a technical consultant. Though the characters are placed in a specifically Irish-Italian milieu, as a story of trust and loyalty, betrayal and deception, it could be found in any big city around the world.

Giving the strongest performance of the all-star cast, DiCaprio excels in conveying the conflict of a young man who has gotten himself into a bad situation and then wonders what the hell he’s doing there. DiCaprio renders an intense, volcanic performance, based as much on gestures as on words, resulting in high-impact emotional turn. Of the three roles, he played for Scorsese, this is by far DiCaprio’s most impressive.

While the story is set entirely in Boston, principal photography was executed in and around Boston and New York. Most of the exterior scenes were shot in the Boston Common, Boston Harbor, Chinatown, and, of course, South Boston, known to the locals as “Southie.” Traveling outside of the city, the company also shot in the neighboring towns of Braintree, Quincy, and Dorchester (where cast member Mark Wahlberg comes from).

Production designer Kristi Zea (who had previously collaborated on “GoodFellas”) and longtime Scorsese vet cinematographer Michael Ballhaus capture the specific style of New England architecture, like the three-story wooden houses with front or back porches on each floor, and what they label as ‘brutalist’ mode of architecture, including the City Hall.

Outside of Downtown Boston, most of the structures are low, with plenty of sky view.
Juxtaposed with the city’s historical landmarks, the imposing, cement-gray Hurley Building, in the heart of Boston’s Government Square, was selected to serve as the exterior for the utilitarian headquarters of the Massachusetts State Police.

The team created the interiors of the headquarters on a cavernous soundstage in the Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section, with the gray and brown palette of the existing structures.

As noted, The Departed is strongly shaped by the noir vocabulary. The film is lit like a black-and-white work, especially in the police station, which doesn’t have much color. Ballhaus takes a similar approach to lighting the police headquarters, normally lit with fluorescents, thus creating a wash of light with no tension. Instead, Ballhaus uses direct light and shadows to add variety and texture to the atmosphere.

That said, whenever used, color creates an intense dramatic effect. Costume designer Sandy Powell utilized color to set Nicholson’s Costello apart from the rest. Most of the characters wear uniforms or ordinary street clothes in neutral tones of brown, gray, and beige. Not so in the case of Nicholson, perhaps due to his interpretation, which carries his role to an extreme. Consistent with the view that Costello has so much power he can wear whatever he wants and no one would dare question it, Nicholson is clad in orange shirt with blue jackets and leopard robes, or other lurid colors that call attention to his idiosyncratic character–and acting.

This being a vantage Scorsese picture, The Departed is richly dense with references and homages to other directors. Taking a cue from Hitchcocks Marnie and its use of red, theres a deliberate injection of red within the predominantly colorless settings. Whenever theres red on screen, it stands out, because most of the costumes and sets are almost monochromatic. Scorsese utilizes this specific color as a subliminal message, as a sign of risk and danger, with blood being the most obvious correlate.

Speaking of blood, the last reel is particularly violent, and some of the shootouts are deliberately staged in grotesquely extremist way. Two climactic encounters owe (perhaps unintentionally) a visual debt to Tarantinos Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

The letter X is also used symbolically, on windows, walls, and floors, as a tribute to the 1932 movie “Scarface,” directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Howard Hughes (the subject of “Aviator”), in which the X has special significance in the text.

The X is, of course, a sign of death, and its used in the film in both subtle and blatant mode. The concept of death harkens back to the film’s title: The Catholic Church refers to the dead as the faithful departed. Among other things, The Departed is about faithfulnessto self as well as to others.

Finally, I recognized an explicit allusion to Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Toward the end, theres a poignant scene at the cemetery where Vera Farmiga walks by her lover Matt Damon without looking at him, recreating the scene between Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten in that 1950 masterpiece.