Discover more from Appetite for Deconstruction
Scorsese/DiCaprio: 'The Departed'
Or, as I prefer to call it, 'The Depahted.'
Killers of the Flower Moon, the latest collaboration between cinematic deity Martin Scorsese and the mega-star Leonardo DiCaprio, will be released this Friday, October 20. In anticipation of this momentous event, I’m going to spend this week taking a look back at the duo’s previous partnerships. So far, we’ve re-reviewed 2002’s Gangs of New York and 2004’s The Aviator, and we continue today with the duo’s third team-up: 2006’s The Departed.
The Departed - or, as I prefer to call it, The Depahted - is, as of this writing, the strongest collaboration yet between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a remake of a 2002 Chinese flick, Infernal Affairs; I haven’t seen that film since its U.S. release in ‘04, but my memory of it is that it played much more like a silly action film than a serious gangster drama. But Scorsese is one of the all-time great contributors to crime cinema, in part because even at their most stylized, his mob movies always feel deeply authentic. Scripted by former Spy magazine editor William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven, Body of Lies), The Depahted retains the basic shape and admittedly-convoluted plot twists of Infernal Affairs, but makes the entire narrative feel plausible (if not necessarily likely). The result is a crackerjack thriller that is thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end, despite whatever nits there are to be picked.
Either despite or because of his strong Catholicism, one of Scorsese’s many talents is telling stories with a nihilistic bent. Think about Taxi Driver, in which the violent tendencies of lunatic loner Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) ultimately make him a hero (I know some people think the last ten minutes of Taxi Driver is all Bickle’s fantasy as he’s dying after a gunfight, but there’s really nothing in the text of the film to support this theory); or Cape Fear, where evil is theoretically vanquished, but not without leaving permanent scars on the family that stared it down; or Goodfellas, at the end of which the protagonist, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), is not grateful to have escaped the mafia with his life under the protection of the witness protection program, but is upset that, having once been the guy who can cut the line at the Copa, is now “an average nobody” who has “to wait around like everyone else… like a schnook.” And The Depahted is nothing if not nihilistic.
During the film’s opening montage, the sociopathic, homicidal gangster Frank Costello (a truly menacing Jack Nicholson, giving his last great performance before he retired in 2010) tells us that when he was a kid, “they would say we can become cops, or criminals. Today, what I'm saying to you is this: when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?” This question is at the heart of the narrative, and the answers at which it arrives are less-than-reassuring.
The film has two protagonists. The first, Colin (Matt Damon) is working class. He’s recruited as a kid by Costello with a surprisingly simple bribe of free groceries. As Costello’s mole, he not only gets to maintain the appearance of being on the right side of the law, but he gets a fancy apartment he shouldn’t be able to afford with a gorgeous view of the golden-domed Massachusetts State House and the love of a beautiful psychiatrist, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). In other words, he’s seduced and gifted the “respectable” life he likely never would attained had he stuck to his roots, and his existence is fairly cushy until he’s finally killed near the end of the movie… so long as you don’t consider the fact that his inner psychological conflict renders him impotent, leading Madolyn to have affair with, and ultimately become impregnated by, Billy. Regardless, he, himself, expresses that he’d rather be killed than be sent to prison; he prefers a shorter, more comfortable life to a longer one living in a cage.
Colin’s counterpart, Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio), is a cop with anger management issues who goes undercover to infiltrate Costello’s organization. He’s recruited for this mission by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen, reliably wonderful) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg, who gets most of the movie’s best lines), who rope him in by preying on his misplaced sense of honor: Billy’s father was working class and his uncle was part of Costello’s crew, but his mother has money and respectability. They accuse him of “pretending to be a cop” (or “cawp,” as they pronounce it), and assure him that he will quit the force within a number of years. They basically paint him into a corner, daring him to prove them wrong, and he falls for it, volunteering for an assignment that will prove to be a complete nightmare; so profoundly is he ensconced in violence and terrified his life that he becomes an anxiety-ridden wreck of a man before he’s finally killed near the end of the movie. He goes to his grave without friends or family or the knowledge that Madolyn is going to bear his child.
Facing a loaded gun, which of these guys had it better: The “hero” or the “villain”?
The protagonists’ moral quandaries are reflected in the behavior of the supporting characters that surround them.
Madolyn, who initially meets Billy under professional circumstances (she’s unaware that he’s undercover), ostensibly allows herself to be bullied into giving Billy meds to help him cope - to say nothing of the fact that I’m pretty sure she’s not supposed to sleep with her patients. The scene where she and Billy go to bed together, not-coincidentally, is scored a version of “Comfortably Numb” performed by Roger Waters, Van Morrison, and The Band, because the characters aren’t in love or even lust so much as they’re just desperate to feel something other than their usual state of existential despair.
Colin is murdered by Dignam after Dignam resigns from the force expressly because it places limitations on his ability to mete out “justice” (whatever that even means in this case).
Costello re-states his unscrupulous, atheistic thesis later in the movie, when a local tells him that his mother is “on the way out,” to which Costello replies, “We all are - act accordingly.” It later turns out that Costello is playing both sides the whole time, ratting out other gangsters to the FBI, who, in exchange, look the other way as he oversees his criminal empire.
Costello’s right hand man, Mr. French (a top-notch Ray Winstone), is similarly without true loyalty. He punishes Billy from beating up a bar customer who is “protected,” only to wail on that same customer himself a few seconds later. When he finds out his wife is unfaithful (the movie even kind of implies she slept with Costello), he strangles her to death. And in one scene, he tells a terrified man, “I’m not gonna hurt you,” before shooting that man in the head - it’s not clear whether or not he was deliberately lying or believes he was giving the man a quick and painless death.
Even Colin’s superior on the force, Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin, who gets all the best lines Wahlberg does not), is ethically dubious, as evidenced by this exchange, in which he demonstrates that he values not having to do paperwork over integrity:
At the end of the movie, Dignam kills Colin, who is surprisingly resigned to his fate. Most directors would play that moment as a victory (indeed, on YouTube, some schmoe has labeled the scene “Payback!”). But the final shot of The Depahted is the view of the Massachusetts State House from Colin’s balcony, which is disrupted by the presence of a literal rat. Nothing, Scorsese tells us, is untainted.