(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Rookie cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) grew up in crime. That makes him the perfect mole, the man on the inside of the mob run by boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). It’s his job to win Costello’s trust and help his detective handlers (Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen) bring Costello down. Meanwhile, SIU officer Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has everyone’s trust. No one suspects he’s Costello’s mole. How these covert lives cross, double-cross and collide is at the ferocious core of the widely acclaimed The Departed.
– From DVD Production Notes
Holy shit I haven’t wanted to write about The Departed this month. I’ve likened it to a panic attack in a box, one of those rare films that stresses me out from beginning to end but is so compelling I can’t turn away. Part of the reason is the story’s roots in reality, particularly Whitey Bulger‘s 30-year stranglehold on Boston. In 2008 I met Michael Patrick MacDonald, an activist and author of All Souls: A Family Story From Southie (1999), so I got a copy of the book. I was shocked as I read about Bulger’s direct and indirect influence on MacDonald’s life, resulting in the deaths of acquaintances, friends and a few of his siblings. To say the least, I don’t take things like that lightly.
The Departed is fiction, but knowing that doesn’t make it go down any easier. In some ways it’s a slick Hollywood thriller but has an uncontainable energy that sets it apart from its contemporaries. It alternates between devastation to moments of dark comedy without losing its edge or momentum. And what’s more- it’s memorable. It has been years but The Departed has a habit of intersecting with my life in unexpected ways, like when I’m a designated driver in a bar and end up drinking cranberry juice.
No joke- someone yelled that at me at a bar once. I shouldn’t have bothered to order anything in the first place, since every bar’s “cranberry juice” tastes like garbage.
The first thing I heard about the film was its fixation with rats. The source was an irate film professor who proclaimed Scorsese had ruined his own movie by literally putting one in the final shot (side note: this amused me since this was the kind of professor who believed he was superior to everyone, including his students, all artists and yes, even Scorsese). Indeed the idea of rats (or referring to “rats”) is central to the plot, as well as its sister term “mole.” You know, whatever analogy about a rodent screwing things up for the corrupt and powerful.
After watching the film several times I still don’t know how many rats and/or moles figure into the plot. That’s kind of the point. Some of the suspects are speculative or ambiguous. The two at the center of the action are Sullivan (Damon) and Costigan (DiCaprio), whose performance was so intense I once wrote, “I was living in his body more than watching a film.” That hasn’t changed, but I am beginning to better understand why.
On the other hand you have Damon as Sullivan, who has nearly everything going his way the entire film. While other characters are getting beaten, shot or traumatized, he sits coolly behind his badge and his desk, making sure Costello (Nicholson) doesn’t get caught. He lives a life of ease and luxury: a high-paying job, a large apartment and his beautiful girlfriend Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). He is confident that anything he wants can be easily attained, paying no notice to who has gotten him there.
The contrast between these two men is part of why I find The Departed compelling. Both of them are pressured to do similar things but their behavior and motivations are completely different. Costigan’s main concern is finishing the job while it becomes obvious that Sullivan’s is nothing more than self-preservation. They are also perceived differently by their peers. For the most part Sullivan is respected, confident and treated well by others. In the meantime Costigan is constantly put down, berated and reminded he’s nothing.
One of the most interesting things I’ve pondered about the film is what this contrast suggests about masculinity and male identity. If a man has the appearance of respectability and is likable does that truly mean he’s a worthwhile man? If a man is without power or at a disadvantage should his deeds and intentions be ignored? Not to be crude, but a lot of the men in The Departed definitely have balls, shooting their mouths off and beating the shit out of each other- most notably Dignam (Wahlberg), who is undoubtedly the resident smartass.
But who are the real men here? After all is said and done the supposedly weakest and most expendable one was the best at his job and got most of the work done. It’s also worth pointing out he is most likely the father of Madolyn’s unborn child at the end of the film, especially since there are allusions to Sullivan having trouble in the bedroom. Many of the men of The Departed talk shit, get laid and end up dead, including Costigan, but he is indirectly outliving them all through his son.
I can only speculate that the filming of The Departed was crowded with powerful male personalities, both on camera and off. Ray Winstone, who played Costello’s right hand man, admitted that he didn’t get along with Nicholson on set because of his behavior. Nicholson was allowed to improvise while in character, which was most likely challenging for other actors but added tension and unpredictability to his scenes. And holy shit is he threatening in this. Other times he is oddly poignant or downright hilarious, like when he trails off mid-sentence and a scene hangs in awkward silence.
Among the diverse male cast is the sole female presence of Farmiga, whose character makes choices as strange as they are complex. Her first meeting with Costigan consists of him yelling at her, throwing trash on her desk, storming out then asking her to have coffee with him. I threw my hands up and was like, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME,” but her attraction to him suggests she is drawn to damage. With Costigan it’s more apparent and perhaps with Sullivan it’s subconscious.
Neither man knows she has slept with the other, and when their paths cross it’s beside the point. There are plenty of reasons for them to hate each other. Their first (and final) confrontation is where you finally figure out who and what they are before its over, ending with one of the most memorable elevator rides in cinema history and a body count of three.
That’s why I was surprised when a friend of mine borrowed the film from me a few years ago. “It was so… boring,” she said. I was taken aback but another friend of mine said, “If you were bored by that film you must have died ten years ago.”
Or in Boston speak: “Go fuck yaself.”