Boston, Massachusetts. A young police officer from South Boston, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), goes undercover and, after serving jail time and participating in several attention-grabbing deals, joins the Irish-American mob run by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), an amoral, sociopath prone to violence. Costigan gains Costello's confidence through several grueling tests, rising rapidly through the mob's ranks. Gaining Costello's confidence, however, doesn't mean that Mr. French (Ray Winstone), Costello's chief enforcer, or the other members of Costello's tight-knit crew, don't have their doubts about their newest, temperamental member.
Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), Costello's inside man/informer, goes straight from graduating the police academy to the Special Investigation Unit under Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin). The Special Investigation Unit (SIU) has none other than Costello and his crew as their principal target. Sullivan also develops a romantic relationship with Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), a psychiatrist on the police department payroll. As a condition of his probation, Costigan gets Madolyn as his therapist.
Once Costello is tipped off that there's a mole in his organization, he relentlessly pressures Sullivan to find out more information. Costigan's superiors, Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen), also discover that there's a mole working inside the police department. Separately, Costigan and Sullivan have to find out the mole's identity, while protecting their real identities from their respective superiors and from each other. Discovery means a swift violent end for whoever gets caught first, but retribution also puts their families, friends, and anyone else who might know their real identities at grave personal risk.
With Scorsese at the helm, audiences can and will expect a seasoned cast to give naturalistic, rounded performances. They won't be disappointed. Nicholson shows more restraint here than he has in the last ten years (well, with the exception of one or two scenes). It's a good thing, since another over-the-top, scenery-chewing Nicholson performance is exactly what The Departed doesn't need. DiCaprio probably gives the best performance of his career. DiCaprio shows a subtlety and depth that his past performances have only hinted at. Aging has been good for the now thirty-something DiCaprio. He's lost the softness that made it difficult to accept him in adult-oriented roles. In a more introspective role, Matt Damon is no less credible, relying on smaller, more intimate gestures to reflect the inner conflict that afflicts his character. Likewise with Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg in key supporting roles.
Thematically, The Departed explores the compromises and internal conflicts that inexorably, inevitably affect anyone engaging in undercover work, but doubles the complications and reversals. Like the title character in Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco, Costigan becomes compromised and conflicted by his undercover work, even as his anxiety and fear of discovery threaten to overwhelm him. Like Costigan, Sullivan's rapid promotion into the SIU (he's a good cop when he's not tipping Costello off) results in close bonds with several other officers. Sullivan also begins thinking of a political career, attending law school at night. Ultimately, Costigan and Sullivan have to face the consequences of their decisions, with predictably tragic results.
If The Departed has any problems (and it does), they can be traced to the last twenty-thirty minutes. Scorsese and Monaghan temporary disentangle Costigan and Sullivan's intertwined storylines at the two-hour mark, only to slowly bring them back together again for a second ending, then a third, incompletely earned ending. Scorsese also indulges in gratuitous headshots (Scorsese's favorite device for dispatching characters, apparently). The central characters get what they deserve, but at least in one instance, it feels cheap and contrived (because it is). But back to the length issue: has Scorsese grown self-indulgent or has he become increasingly incapable of trimming his films to a more manageable length? One or both seems to be the correct answer. Has Scorsese possibly confused length for profundity? That's certainly possible.
Scorsese has certainly allowed some of his non-mainstream films (e.g., The Last Temptation of Christ) to run close to three hours, but at least there Scorsese could argue that the adaptation of a controversial novel demanded the running time. That's not the case here nor was it the case for Gangs of New York or his most recent film, The Aviator (the partial excuse there, though, is that biographies tend to run closer to three hours than to two). Still, The Departed's two-and-a-half hour running time is a minor, easily forgivable issue. Yes, that means Scorsese might just get that long-delayed Best Directing Oscar next spring at the Academy Awards.
© Mel Valentin, 6th October, 2006
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