Dir. Martin Scorsese. Starring Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson
I’m contractually obligated to bring up the rat crawling in front of the Massachusetts State House, one of my least favorite shots ever, but on rewatching The Departed for the zillionth time, it seems like the reason it’s in the movie at all is because the filmmakers ran out of steam. This is a movie with juice, certainly, but its final act isn’t quite sure what to do with all of it. Thus the shootout in which the Costello gang are blown to bits, exploded, etc., and thus the rapid streak of three murders at the end of the picture which only leaves Sullivan (Damon) alive. Compared to the violence and shock of those two scenes, everything else feels like anticlimax: Costello (Nicholson) cops to having sold out some guys to the FBI, Sullivan deletes Costigan’s police file when he realizes that Costigan knows he’s the rat, Madden (Vera Farmiga) won’t talk to him after Costigan’s big showy funeral, Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) murders Sullivan as he brings his groceries back to his giant apartment in view of the statehouse. The rat scurries by. In context, it is one more thing after a list of a whole lot of things which just happen in the final twenty minutes because it has to end somewhere. Maybe you’d argue that Hamlet has this same problem, but at least that has “Good night, sweet prince/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” instead of like, a snake slithering on top of Claudius’ corpse.
The problem with The Departed is the screenplay, which is not something one says often about Scorsese movies, but this one is just not all that good. There are so many scenes of the Costello gang just like, doing their jobs, which I guess is not ineffective, but there’s something much more Tarantino than Scorsese about the overkill; what do they add up to? Even the bit about the microprocessors, which has gotten dragged over the Internet in the intervening years, feels like a sort of dead end. I like Sullivan’s desperate attempts to inform Costello that he’s in trouble, the risk that he takes in front of all the other cops to fulfill his role, but it’s an awfully big package for such a small gift. The dialogue is mostly wanting, especially when it aches to be quotable. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those lines go to Mark Wahlberg, the person in this movie who is the least capable of making those lines come off naturally. When he comes into Ellerby’s (Alec Baldwin) meeting, everything he says, from the bit about his mom and dad enjoying each other to the similarities between how one treats the feds and how one grows mushrooms, is unbearably self-conscious, and it gets worse every time. “I’m the guy who does his job,” Dignam sneers at the person doing surveillance during the microprocessor meeting who has been unknowingly sabotaged by Sullivan. “You must be the other guy.” Boy, there’s a knockout punch. Like watching Ali and Frazier go back and forth. Better actors than Wahlberg can do more with the dialogue that doesn’t necessarily work all that well. I’m thinking of the way DiCaprio makes chicken salad out of a heated conversation with Madden during their first session. I’m not sure anyone could rehabilitate “my hand does not shake, ever,” but DiCaprio differentiates his voice enough during the conversation to make that line feel honest in the way that his waxing rhapsodic about Valium is an obvious lie which Madden is nonetheless obligated to address with total seriousness. Sullivan’s aggressive conversations with Madden as he courts her in an elevator or over a French dinner are also reliant on the actor to pull them off. Damon can no more save some post-rugby trash talk than DiCaprio can save analysis of his steady hands, but it shows us how bad Sullivan is at playing it cool. When he realizes this big apartment will have a view of the State House he can use as inspiration, he shuts off conversation about it immediately and demands to sign the papers there and then. When he wants Madden, he laughs his way though saying he’ll arrest her to spend more time with her, but it’s a laugh that’s a little too loud.
When the movie works, it works because of the actors. Damon is great; of all the stuff this movie did win, it’s crazy to me that they couldn’t find room at the Oscars for Damon to get the acting nomination he deserved. DiCaprio got nominated for Blood Diamond instead, which I guess was a showier accent. What stands out is how beautifully the movie finds lanes to give those two men, who are honest to goodness movie stars in an age where the stars blink out all too quickly, the best route to what they’re good at.
Damon has always been at his best when he plays someone courting unlikability who dares us to like him anyway. He made his name doing it in Good Will Hunting and Saving Private Ryan, even though I’d argue that both movies are guilty of presuming a little too much about how much we should like him. Linus of the Ocean’s movies was a pain in the neck, but an essential one who almost singlehandedly keeps Ocean’s Eleven from being too self-satisfied to live. In Syriana, as an analyst who effectively trades the life of his son for a chance to be a would-be king’s right-hand man, he is every bit as awful as he is in The Departed. Even in The Martian, which may go down as the signature Damon movie when all is said and done, Mark Watney is a little too chipper, a little too can-do. In The Departed, we know what drives Sullivan. It’s the same thing that drives Pete Buttigieg: a bigger office. William Monahan’s screenplay is best when it says less and lets Scorsese build our associations for us. That cut to the dome of the State House followed by Damon’s silent, slightly awed reaction is all we need. He’s mesmerized. The path is clear. Heroic state policeman becomes Massachusetts representative, and from there the path widens. A shift to the House of Representatives? Senate? Governor? He rises quickly in the state police, as anyone whose only goal is to climb, and whose only desire is to control, is likely to do. In that context, even his relationship with Madden feels like a way to build up the résumé; a psychiatrist who “believes in public service” is the perfect wife to be in the newspaper photos, standing next to him and smiling.
DiCaprio’s connection to his best performing self is a little more tenuous than Damon’s. At his best, DiCaprio manages to undercut his good looks by playing a character who, despite such a natural advantage (plus whatever other natural advantages he might have) is still deeply insecure. He’s been running from Jack Dawson this whole time, in a way, who knows just how attractive he is and has no other real advantage other than his pride to move him along. Scorsese has been essential in bringing out those insecurities. In Gangs of New York, Amsterdam questions what he’s even trying to get vengeance for and why he is so eager to serve the man who killed his father; in The Aviator, Howard’s OCD threatens to crush a man who could do literally anything with his life. In The Departed, Billy Costigan is a man without a country. He does not much care for Costello’s world of beating people up and generally doing crime, and yet the world he thinks he wants to belong to is one that he is rejected from in the early minutes of the movie, before he can ever truly enter it. There is a push and pull between what it would mean to accept Costello as a sort of father figure (for Costello seems to view Costigan as something like a successor, if not a son) or to chase after Queenan’s (Martin Sheen) approval when he cannot openly give it. One can get hints of this particular conflict throughout the movie, although it’s not quite as interesting as what Damon’s up to, nor is it as fully formed as what Amsterdam was up to four years prior.
Then again, Nicholson isn’t providing nearly as much for DiCaprio to work with as Daniel Day-Lewis gave him. Nicholson isn’t miscast, precisely, but watching him it’s never entirely clear what the character is supposed to be. His henchmen are brutal, but he is not personally violent except in rare cases. He mostly just seems to be…kind of rude and demanding? In a movie where his character is neither villainous nor heroic, neither difficult nor secretive, Nicholson’s brassy performance is something of an awkward fit. Perhaps it should be more interesting that he’s doing everything in plain sight while Sullivan and Costigan are performing secrets, but the movie simply never lands that particular foil. He’s rather like the movie itself in that way: entertaining to watch, but well short of transcendent. Read enough blurbs about the movie from the negative reviews, and by and large they tend to focus on how this movie isn’t quite up to the level of Scorsese’s previous gangster hits. (Apparently this is the step before “Why is he still making these gangster movies at all?” which we all had to live through during The Irishman, a movie which is far more interesting than this one.) It’s not quite fair to judge this movie against Goodfellas or Taxi Driver in the way it’s not really fair to judge any movie against those two. It also misses the point about what doesn’t work in this movie, and the problems that are all its own.