RETURN TO GENIUS: The film remains true to the genre and authentic in atmosphere and details nearly to the end.
No wonder the cops and the feds can’t catch Whitey Bulger: they’re too busy beating the shit out of each other. That’s the impression one gets from Martin Scorsese’s exuberant, ultimately exhausting The Departed, which transplants the dynamics of the 2002 Hong Kong cult hit Infernal Affairs onto the malignant streets and wacky characters once ruled by the fugitive mobster. The film remains true to the genre and authentic in atmosphere and details nearly to the end before blowing it all with a few too many bullets to the head.
It begins in a Southie unfamiliar to viewers of Matt Damon’s Good Will Hunting, a Southie shown first in news clips from the ’70s of locals beating on black people during the busing crisis. With the opening riff of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” ringing on the soundtrack, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) — crime boss, psychopath, philosopher — chimes in with his theories on race, power, and self-reliance. Nobody gives you what you deserve, is his advice to blacks, you have to take it.
Such words seduce young Colin Sullivan. The Church wants you in your place, Frank tells the wide-eyed altar boy as he shakes down a diner owner and hits on his pre-pubescent daughter. Tell them, “Non serviam.” Colin takes up the Satanic invitation and ends up serving Frank. A match cut is made from Colin the boy to Colin the State Police cadet. Later, after graduation, he gets a lift from Frank. He’s his mole in the department.
As is the case in such films at least since Angels with Dirty Faces, the boy from the neighborhood who goes wrong is balanced out by one who goes right. With fellow cadet Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), it’s a bit more complicated. He’s a hothead with a record, but he’s also sensitive. A head case, and thus a perfect candidate, according to avuncular department captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his bad-cop sidekick, Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), to infiltrate Frank’s gang.
What this set-up says about the duality of human nature means less than the anarchic performance of Nicholson. There’s a bit of everything here: the Joker from Batman, Jack from The Shining, Buddusky from The Last Detail. One minute he’s in a box at La traviata; the next he’s coming from the back room of a dank barroom, seemingly distracted, his arms bloodstained to the elbows.
He holds the film together even when Scorsese sets off a bunch of flashbacks and parallel-edited montages like a long string of firecrackers. Scorsese’s sense of place helps too: though a lot of the film was shot in Brooklyn, it feels like a certain circle of Boston hell. Maybe despair, rage, sin, and pee smell the same everywhere. If The Departed had only the badinage and the donnybrooks of Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin as his department nemesis going for it, it would still be one of the better films of the year.
But as in the original, women are the film’s downfall. One woman, in this case, as Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan tighten the screws by making Colin’s girlfriend and Billy’s shrink the same person. Vera Farmiga’s Madolyn is a plot device as vague as her accent. So too are the perfunctory pot shots of the dénouement. Scorsese isn’t about plots; he’s about people, places, and times, and until he departs from that, this film is a return to genius.