Academy Award Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing
In the late 2000’s, the city of Boston experienced a surge of popularity in terms of its presence within cinema. A variety of films—from Ben Affleck’s crime thrillers GONE BABY GONE (2007) and THE TOWN (2010) to Dane Cook comedy vehicles like MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL (2008)—didn’t just use Beantown as their own personal Hollywood backlots… they channeled the city’s particular essence and character into the films themselves. The trend started in 2006, when director Martin Scorsese released his Boston-set, Irish-mafia crime thriller THE DEPARTED to massive success and critical appreciation. Just like that, the city was red-hot—and as a film student at Emerson College during that time, it was incredibly exciting to be so close to the action. Emerson’s importance to the city’s local film community even proved helpful to Scorsese himself, who used the college’s facilities to view THE DEPARTED’s dailies.
Produced by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B and written by William Monahan, THE DEPARTED started life as a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller INFERNAL AFFAIRS. Monahan’s take transplanted the story to his native Boston, giving THE DEPARTED a flair and attitude all its own. If you have to remake a foreign film, this is how you do it. Monahan and Scorsese’s fractured, tangled narrative hopscotches all over the place while disregarding traditional film narrative conventions—indeed, the title card doesn’t even show up until eighteen minutes in. The plot plays to a similar relationship dynamic that Scorsese previously used in GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), that of a young Irish man who is taken under the wing of the powerful crime lord who killed his father. THE DEPARTED begins on Graduation Day at the Police Academy, focusing on two young cadets with similar backgrounds, but who couldn’t have turned out more different from each other. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is a well-heeled, ambitious man and a rising star within the force. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, however, he’s also a double agent providing inside information to Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), one of the most prominent figures in Irish organized crime. On the other side, a less-promising recruit named Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is enlisted to go undercover on a very special assignment: infiltrate Costello’s inner circle and help the State Troopers take him down from the inside. What follows is an elaborate game of “Find The Rat”, in which both sides manipulate the actions of the other and task themselves with finding the mole within their respective organizations. The crux of the plot revolves around efforts to stop Costello from selling valuable microprocessors to the Chinese, but the film’s heart lies in the cloak and dagger treachery between cops and robbers—but in this new post 9/11 world, neither side can afford to trust any of its own men.
THE DEPARTED continues Scorsese’s collaboration with his new leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. As Billy Costigan, DiCaprio takes an unexpected approach and injects a twitchy, strung-out sensibility into his performance aimed at assuring those around him that he is most definitely not a cop. He’s a deeply troubled young man without much in the way of possessions or friends and family—the perfect guy to infiltrate Costello’s tight-knit unit. Being of Boston stock himself, Matt Damon is a natural at conveying Colin Sullivan’s cocky, swaggering bravado. The role is a rare villainous turn for Damon, and he uses his leading-man charisma to play the two-faced rat bastard brilliantly. Ultimately, however, THE DEPARTEDbelongs to Jack Nicholson and his show-stealing performance as Irish mob boss and secret FBI informant Frank Costello. As Nicholson has gotten older, he’s become extremely selective in the roles he takes on, but the lure of working with Scorsese proved to be undeniable to the veteran actor. In fact, Nicholson’s performance here will arguably go down as his last great role when the time comes to assess his legacy. The character of Frank Costello is based off real-life Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, who fled Boston in the 90’s to escape arrest and was only recently discovered living in an nondescript apartment in Santa Monica. Nicholson plays Costello like a loaded gun liable to go off at any moment, and the characters’ salacious affectations for casual racism, prostitutes, and flamboyant animal prints give him a carte-blanche license for an indulgent performance.
Scorsese’s brilliant supporting cast gives inspired, outsized performances that threaten to steal the show right out from under Nicholson and DiCaprio. Any film has its own alternate cast history— legends of offers made and rejected, actors and fans alike left to wonder what could’ve been. We like to think that accomplished directors like Scorsese always get their first choices in talent– but had Scorsese’s original vision come together, we would’ve have a version of THE DEPARTED featuring Robert De Niro as Captain Queenan, Ray Liotta as Dignam, Mel Gibson as Captain Ellerby, and Brad Pitt as Colin Sullivan. As it actually worked out, we got the version with Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin and Matt Damon (respectively) instead. Thankfully, the result is nothing short of fireworks. Like Damon, Wahlberg is a born-and-raised son of Boston, and his Oscar-nominated portrayal of foul-mouthed staff sergeant Dignam comes off as extremely natural. Sheen plays his superior, the paternal and soft-spoken Captain Queenan. After previously appearing in THE AVIATOR (2004) for Scorsese, Alec Baldwin again plays what I suspect to just be another fictionalized variant of his own self—the explosive, coked-out Captain Ellerby. Vera Farmiga plays Madolyn, a demure police psychologist who finds her affections torn between Costigan and Sullivan. Ray Winstone, Anthony Anderson, and Kevin Corrigan fill out the remainder of the supporting cast of note—Winstone plays Costello’s right hand man, the gruff and stoic Mr. French. Anderson’s casting as a fellow State Trooper and colleague of Sullivan’s is pleasantly surprising, and Kevin Corrigan (who previously appeared in Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS (1990) when he was just a kid) plays Billy Costigan’s cousin Sean- a smalltime Southie drug dealer.
As far as thrillers go, THE DEPARTED is quite possibly Scorsese’s most accessible film from a visual standpoint. Collaborating once again with regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, Scorsese renders Boston’s gritty streets in a sleek, polished style that calls to mind the breathless energy of GOODFELLAS and CASINO (1995). Shot in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, THE DEPARTED revels in its reckless disregard for conventional scene coverage. Scorsese and Ballhaus utilize a delirious combination of Steadicam, crane, and dolly camerawork to give an operatic feel to the proceedings, while the intermixing of documentary archival footage of civil unrest in the opening credits creates a raw sociological immediacy. From extended tracking shots to simple push-ins, Scorsese keeps the camera in constant motion. He indulges in expressionistic flourishes, such as the near-abstract rendering of a footchase through the streets of Chinatown, where (literal) smoke and mirrors obfuscate DiCaprio’s tracking of Damon. Composition-wise, THE DEPARTED is filled with Scorsese’s usual imagery (split-focus diopter and old-fashioned iris shots to name a few), in addition to a few playful flourishes, like the placement of X’s in the frame whenever there’s an onscreen death—a subtle trick Scorsese uses to homage their original use in Howard Hawks’ SCARFACE (1932). Working once again with longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who won an Oscar for her work here), Scorsese reflects the jittery, jumpy nature of DiCaprio’s protagonist by employing New Wave-style jump cuts and dropped frames that give the picture a hopped-up sense of reality. These jump cuts become yet another point of homage, with Scorsese alluding to Stanley Kubrick’s infamous millennia-spanning “bone to spaceship” jump cut in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) by depicting Damon’s character’s growth from boy to man in extreme close-up via a single hard cut.
Music plays an integral role in any Scorsese film, and THE DEPARTED counts as one of the most musically-distinguished films in the director’s oeuvre. Reteaming with Howard Shore for their fourth feature together, the soundtrack is notable for its inspired tango sound, which alludes to the back-and-forth pursuit of the film’s events as a kind of elaborate dance. It’s one of the most original score approaches in recent memory, going a long way towards establishing a tonally-appropriate levity in an otherwise darkly morbid plot. Right off the bat, THE DEPARTED’s source cues inform us we are watching a Scorsese film, blending classic rock from the Rolling Stones (specifically, “Gimme Shelter”—the third time Scorsese has used it) and newer tracks (like the Dropkick Murphy’s anthemic “Shipping Up To Boston”) with the timelessness of Old World opera music. Scorsese takes a particularly punk-rock approach to THE DEPARTED’s musical landscape, throwing everything together without any regard for harmoniousness or congruity; he even goes so far as frequently dropping the music out abruptly and entirely via a hard cut. The effect adds a vibrant, comedic punch to the proceedings. This technique has been used before by younger directors like Quentin Tarantino, and Scorsese’s use of it in THE DEPARTED shows us that he may be an elder statesman of cinema, but he’s not afraid to look to the work of his successors for creative inspiration.
Boston and New York City share a peculiar kind of rivalry, and it’s not just limited to baseball. I’ve known several Bostonites who’d rather die before moving to New York. As one of New York City’s most-treasured artists, Scorsese’s depiction of Beantown stands to tell us a lot about how a native Gothamite might view the city. It turns out that, in the eye of Uncle Marty, Boston is just a smaller version of New York in which the passionate staccato of Italian culture is simply replaced with the lilting brogues of the Irish. Scorsese has always been interested in chronicling the immigrant experience in America, albeit from his native Italian perspective, but THE DEPARTED’s modern context continues the director’s insights into the Irish experience initially explored in GANGS OF NEW YORK. The city of Boston boasts one of the biggest population of Irish Roman Catholics in the country, thus Scorsese is able to naturally incorporate his fascination with his Catholic heritage and the iconography it engenders: cathedrals, priests, nuns, and funerals. Keeping in line with his very best work, Scorsese’s set of protagonists in THE DEPARTED is comprised of hoods, thugs, and otherwise-fatally-flawed men. Moral ambiguity has always been the name of the game for Scorsese, but the twist here is that now these people are in a position of civil authority—they’re cops, charged with protecting the peace, yet they’re still resorting to crime and manipulative tactics for the sake of their own self-betterment. THE DEPARTED might be one of Scorsese’s most commercially-accessible works, but that doesn’t mean he skimps on gore and violence; indeed, he portrays the bloodletting in unpredictably chaotic, signature fashion, with the climax taking this approach to absurd, near-comedic extremes. In a way, it both channels and parodies the climax to Scorsese’s other disturbingly-violent masterpiece, TAXI DRIVER (1976).
THE DEPARTED was released in the fall of 2006 to strong box office and healthy critical praise—to the point that it quickly overtook CAPE FEAR as Scorsese’s most commercially successful film to date. Much like they had done for GANGS OF NEW YORK or THE AVIATOR in recent years prior, industry insiders buzzed in hushed whispers that this might finally be the year that Scorsese takes homes The Gold Statue. Oscar night finally arrived, and Scorsese and company sat patiently as Schoonmaker won for editing, and Monahan won for the screenplay. When it came time to announce Best Director, a beautiful thing happened:
The highest-profile filmmakers of the Film Brat generation—Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg—strode on stage to present the award. I was three thousand miles away, watching the telecast in a dumpy apartment in Boston, but the sheer electricity in the air of the Kodak Theatre auditorium was palpable even to me. We all knew he’d finally done it; the reading of the actual envelope was at this point merely a formality. Scorsese’s long-overdue acceptance speech was filled with his characteristic self-deprecating wit (“did you double check the envelope?”), but even he couldn’t help but be moved by the vocal approval of hundreds of people applauding in waves of overwhelming joy. As night turned to day, and our collective euphoria began to wear off, detractors began to dilute the importance of the win, dismissing it as an unofficial Lifetime Achievement Award by an apologetic Academy for all those prior times he probably should have won. However, this detracts from the ability of THE DEPARTED to stand on its own merits, of which there are many. Scorsese may jokingly attribute the success of THE DEPARTED to it being “the first film he’s ever done with a plot”, but as the film’s tenth anniversary rapidly approaches, time has shown that THE DEPARTED isn’t just his best film of the 2000’s—it’s one of the best films in his entire filmography.
THE DEPARTED is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.
Produced by: Brad Grey, Graham King, Brad Pitt
Written by: William Monahan
Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
Production Designer: Kristi Zea
Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music by: Howard Shore