is director Martin Scorsese’s rather long-winded return to the crime drama (as a man gets older, his stories tend to get longer, if not necessarily gentler), and it’s very much a men’s movie. In some ways, this is a deeply obvious observation—just take a look at the marquee: Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg. Not mentioned, but very much present: Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin (who has thickened into a truly great character actor).
Yeah, there’s a woman: Vera Farmiga as Madolyn, a lady psychiatrist-for-cops who gets flustered way too easily in the face of both Damon’s roguish charm and DiCaprio’s earnest-aggressive emoting. But she’s less of a character than a mirror, a chance for us to see new aspects of Damon and DiCaprio in the way they’re reflected off of her.
...besides the ruminations on truth and fatherhood, you get a lot of bracingly blunt dialogue, men being men around men.
Of course, there’s a point to the reflection—The Departed deals heavily in deception, and our feminine mirror gives some answer to mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson) when he says, “The Church told us we could be cops or criminals, but when you’re looking down the barrel of a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” It’s cops vs. gangsters (Irish this time) in Boston, and each side has an agent in the other’s operation—Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) infiltrating the gang and Colin Sullivan (Damon) rising through the ranks of the force.
Naturally, both moles fall in love with the same woman, and what ensues shows us that there is a difference: it matters whom you’re lying for. Sullivan lies for the bad guys, and therefore, to Madolyn. He’s sleeping with her, but he can’t tell her the truth, and it becomes clearer and clearer that his life of deception has severed him from the possibility of genuine human connection. Everybody around you is somebody to fool. That makes it harder to see them as people—even if you want to love them. (Madolyn, for her part, gets a lesson in the futility of “lying to keep an even keel.”)
Costigan, on the other hand, wants searing honesty with Madolyn—both for her and from her. His conferences with her also make the case that it matters what lies you’re telling. Never mind the dangers inherent in being a cop among gangsters; Costigan is going nuts from cozying up to evil and pretending to like it. (But even so, he pleads with Costello—the very man he’s deceiving—to get out for his own good, and while the speech has a cover-your-ass aspect to it, there’s a sincere streak as well.) The tension between who he is and who he’s pretending to be is too much for him; it’s why he ends up taking drugs, despite his deceptive past.
Ah, the past. It’s where The Departed opens, and it’s where that “men’s movie” thing gains a little depth. Right off the bat, we get a (younger) Costello dispensing wisdom about getting along in the world: “Nobody gives it to you; you have to take it.” That’s a man’s mantra if ever there was one; we’re about as far from Mary’s “Let it be done unto me” as we can get. And it’s not even true on a natural level: start with your first home in the womb—given to you, through no action of your own, by Mom.
We’re about as far from Mary’s 'Let it be done unto me' as we can get.
Moms have a reputation for giving ‘til it hurts, living refutations of Costello’s claim. Perhaps that’s why there are almost no mothers in The Departed, only fathers—lots of ‘em. Even a throwaway scene between Sheen’s Officer Queenan and Costello includes traded barbs about dads—Queenan’s “wasn’t around.” But it starts with Costello and Sullivan, way back when—Costello doing a nice turn for the boy whose father has died, buying him groceries and tossing in a couple of comic books. Costello giving the boy a chance to earn some money, and explaining to him why the Church has it wrong—telling you what to do, keeping you in line, setting boundaries. (And for that matter, making you dependent on a heavenly Father and His grace, hardly a notion in keeping with the autonomy of “you have to take it.”) Twenty-odd years later, when Sullivan calls his boss the mobster, he calls him Dad.
Sullivan takes Costello’s lesson about how “you’ve got to take it” to heart; besides police work, he’s attending law school, and he takes an apartment with a view of the State House’s golden dome. He’s a striver, humble roots be damned. But it’s got to be tough on a guy when everyone at his job is telling him he’s a rising star, and he’s still got to go home and kiss ass with his surrogate father. How poignant is it, how pathetic, when our golden-boy cop meets up with Costello in a porn theater and begs for “Dad” to trust him, to let him do things his way? He might be 18, telling his blue-collar father that he wants to be a painter. Small wonder that Sullivan, lying in bed with Madolyn, starts musing about finishing law school, leaving police work, and moving to another city. Never mind the dangers inherent in being a dirty cop; he’s gotta get out from under the old man’s shadow. And then, when Sullivan has to grow up and realize that Costello may not be everything he thought he was, what then? He starts to wonder if “Dad” is just as lousy as he knows himself to be, if the only person he’s honest with hasn’t been straight with him. “You have to take it,” indeed.
Jack Nicholson does a grand impression of Herod, rotting in his own flesh.
Costigan had, and has, the better time of it, Dad-wise. Dad worked at the airport—a menial job, handling other people’s stuff—but he stayed clean. He never used his family connections to get a piece of Costello’s action. (That model of integrity may be why Costigan bids adieu to the moneyed side of his family and signs up with the Staties.) Initially, Costello expresses contempt for the man who spurned him. But his respect leaks out, to the point where he offers Costigan a way out, and sneers when Costigan plays tough and declines. (A telling detail in the same scene—Costello walks over to a couple of priests and taunts them about altar boys. Irish lapso that he is, he delights in thumbing his nose at their moral authority: “Dad”—or in this case, Father—“can’t tell me I’m doing wrong, because he’s just as bad as I am.”)
And if Costello is Sullivan’s surrogate father, then Queenan, the head of the undercover operation, is Costigan’s. When things get tight, he acts very much like the best sort of Dad. He’ll ask his son to take risks and face serious danger—you’ve got to grow up sometime, boyo—but he won’t abandon his boy, not even to protect himself.
There’s a lot to like about The Departed—besides the ruminations on truth and fatherhood, you get a lot of bracingly blunt dialogue, men being men around men. You get some fun performances—Jack Nicholson doing a grand impression of Herod, ostentatiously rotting in his own flesh—and some surprising ones—Leonardo DiCaprio as a compelling grown-up. Cell phones play an integral and interesting role in the proceedings, setting up a marvelous shot of DiCaprio watching his cell vibrate its way across a table as he decides whether or not to answer it. Despite the deception and violence, you get a clear vision of Costigan’s goodness in the midst of it all, and the sense that goodness is worthwhile, not because it guarantees happiness or success, but for some deeper—and perhaps more human—reason. Put simply: Costigan is a man; Sullivan is not. And I hope I may say, without sounding too terribly scrupulous, that I admired Scorsese for taking me into a decadent world without splashing the decadence onscreen. Yes, there’s a shot of Costello wielding a strap-on, but we’re spared T&A in even the easiest of contexts: a coke-dusted three-way and a lesbian porn flick.
I admired Scorsese for taking me into a decadent world without splashing the decadence onscreen.
Even so, when you take a movie to two-and-a-half hours, it can get difficult to maintain momentum. Somewhere along the way, I started thinking, “this movie is long”—never a good sign. Some of the man-talk crosses the line into indulgent posturing. And I’ll be dipped if the final act doesn’t feature a pretty glaring Diablo ex machina. But I’ll put up with a lot from a film that includes the following bit, as fine a condemnation of Costello’s chosen life as you could wish for:
Costello [confronted by Sullivan]: You are like a…
Sullivan: Like a son? That right? All that f-ing and no kids!