A letdown, then, that for all its stylistic fireworks, The Departed feels like Scorsese on auto-pilot. Unlike his previous forays into the lives of anti-establishment, morally conflicted men — Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas in particular — The Departed feels strangely antiseptic, an intricate music box of cinematic flair but utterly hollow as a personal statement. The movie’s plot is so overwrought, crammed with so many angles through which it seeks to tell its story, that Scorsese’s role here is really that of a fevered traffic cop. The Departed remains watchable because, in spite of itself, there’s so much talent on display. But what lingers long after sitting through it is that, in terms of a point-of-view, Scorsese’s fingerprints are nowhere near this film, apart from his customary use of rock ‘n’ roll tunes on the soundtrack (including his rather heavy-handed use of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”). The Departed is Scorsese as a brand: the crime cinema he cultivated is trotted out, its bag of tricks out on display, but the soul is absent. That is reason to mourn, because this movie, the least representative of all in his cinema, represents his best shot at Hollywood acceptance.
In Scorsese’s place are the tiresome hambone antics of Jack Nicholson as ganglord Frank Costello. If it weren’t for the gallery of standout performances by DiCaprio, Baldwin, Sheen and others, Nicholson would’ve brought The Departed down in the crash and fury of a performance that feels like a variation on his already stale Witches of Eastwick schtick. Nicholson’s meant to exude evil, but there’s nothing remotely threatening about the guy; he’s so busy hamming it up, all wide-grinned mugging and clowning around, that he forgets that true evil resides within a cool, composed, largely silent exterior. Consider, for instance, the marvelous Ray Winstone as Mr. French, one of Costello’s right-hand men, who, merely with a glance, can get a guy to tremble and piss his pants. In all his films (Sexy Beast, Cold Mountain, The Proposition are highlights), Winstone’s imposing stature quietly eclipses their lesser qualities. Unfortunately, Winstone is too marginalized a performer here, and time and again I wished that the role of Costello had gone to him. If Nicholson were ditched and Winstone cast as Costello, The Departed could easily have been one of Scorsese’s most fascinating treatments of evil (and one of this year’s best films).
Nicholson notwithstanding, there’s enough in The Departed to keep us involved. The movie’s a reworking of a sleek, sexy 2002 Hong Kong thriller, Infernal Affairs. Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan move the action from Hong Kong to the red-brick patina of Boston, but more or less keep the original’s plot concerning the criss-crossing of informers inside the city’s law enforcement and criminal organizations. On the criminal side, we have Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), Costello’s protégé, snaking himself into the higher eschelons of the Massachusetts state police. The police suspect there’s a mole in their ranks sabotaging their efforts to nab Costello. So they recruit Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an ace rookie with a troubled background, to wile his way into Costello’s favor. Both Sullivan and Costigan try to keep their respective organizations one step ahead of the other’s, and, ultimately, to narrow in on each other’s identities. It’s a crackerjack setup, but all that made it so fluid and inviting in the original is thrown out in favor of the baroque operatics of Monahan’s screenplay and Scorsese’s own high-pitched directing strategy. It makes The Departed a needlessly restive and stifling experience, instead of a carefully modulated and suspenseful crime story.
Vera Farmiga’s psychiatrist, Madolyn, and the love triangule that develops between her, Sullivan and Costigan are among The Departed’s smarter variations on the original. Scorsese’s always been weak when it comes to portraying women, and The Departed would be no exception were it not for Farmiga’s sharp, honest turn as a woman torn between DiCaprio’s vulnerable Costigan, fighting for survival inside a nest of vipers, and Damon’s Sullivan, a capitol liar who’s so immersed in his own deceptive lifestyle that his involvement with Madolyn and with the police force eventually blur as one.
Monahan’s dialogue, thankfully, is barbed with hilariously profane, self-consciously “male” dialogue and actors like Baldwin and Wahlberg take full advantage, milking maximum humor from the paradox between their characters’ professional roles and their war-weary, embittered attitudes towards them. In fact, Wahlberg’s cop Dignam, more than any other character, is The Departed’s moral compass. Dignam acts according to his principles and has nothing to hide. Maybe for those reasons, Wahlberg’s is finally the most charming, the least show-offy performance of the lot. In Dignam, we find something of a conscience in a movie where conscience is compromised at every turn. His voice hardly registers above the fray here, offering the faintest signal from a director trying to say something.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: William Monahan, Siu Fai Mak, Felix Chong
Cast: Leonard DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Dalton, Anthony Anderson