VOD film review: The Departed
James R | On 19, Jan 2017
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga
“I am not a product of my environment. My environment is a product of me.” That’s mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s riveting crime thriller. Based on the excellent 2002 Hong Kong actioner Infernal Affairs, it’s that rare thing in cinema: a remake that manages to improve on an already good original.
Costello, a suspicious sort, plants a mole in the Boston police department: Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). At the same time, the Boston police kick a trainee out of the academy and recruit him to go undercover as a washed-out cadet in Costello’s gang: Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio). William Monahan’s whip-smart script ping-pongs back and forth between the two in a superb opening montage that shows the two boys in the academy, each one unaware of the other’s existence.
DiCaprio (earnest but from the wrong side of the tracks) and Damon (arrogant to a fault) are brilliant as the polar opposites, but their unknown connection is destined to put them on a collision course, and that quick cold open sets the tone for a tense ride. Monahan’s script trims down the original film, even as it expands its runtime, never missing a chance to double down on its parallel lines. Most notably, it condenses two female characters into one: Madolyn, a police psychiatrist who ends up becoming a potential love interest for both men, which gives an understated Vera Farmiga a meatier role to play with.
Even when our antagonists aren’t seeing her, the two are joined together by their mutual reliance on deceiving everyone near them to survive. Billy’s certainly surrounded by a motley crew, with Jack Nicholson relishing the chance to play a Whitey Bulger-inspired crime lord with the kind of manic, weaselly intensity that sets him apart from Pacino’s Scarface or Brando’s Godfather. He’s joined by Ray Winstone as his loyal number two, who gruffly keeps the sense of danger high. In Colin’s corner, meanwhile, are Martin Sheen on fatherly form as the only police chief who knows his real name, and a scene-stealing Mark Wahlberg as his foul-mouthed, hostile deputy.
All of these male characters are unexploded landmines of toxic masculinity, spouting homophobic insults and failing to trust anyone they know. What ensues is a gripping game of power struggles and betrayals, all unfolding in the shadow of the Catholic church, which just four years earlier was investigated by the Boston Globe for covering up sexual abuse. Notions of justice or an institution that protects people from the bad guys are torn up by the film, as it finds corruption in every corner of its rat-infested maze – moral retribution here isn’t achieved through the proper channels, but is taken into these characters’ own hands, although not with any greater success.
Served up with a killer soundtrack, energetic wit and seriously slick editing, the end result is a remake that weaves its source material’s complex tale of hidden identities into Scorsese’s own questions of fate, self-determination and punishment. Are these men all products of their environment? Or have they created the environment that shapes everything to be this way? A symmetrical web of bent cops and broken men in which there are no winners, The Departed shrugs with a glib grin. “How’s your mother?” Costello asks someone halfway through. “She’s on her way out,” comes the reply. Costello smiles: “We all are, act accordingly.”