With Martin Scorsese’s next movie “The Irishman“ currently being filmed and highly anticipated, I thought it would be a nice time to visit his Oscar-winning Boston-based crime tale, “The Departed” (2006). The movie serves as a staggering character study cloaked in the gangster drama genre. An adaptation of the Hong Kong movie “Infernal Affairs“ (2002), this version was penned by William Monahan (who won an Oscar himself for Best Adapted Screenplay). The screenplay is adapted in a way to tell the story of James Joseph ‘Whitey’ Bulger Junior, an Irish-American former organised crime boss of the Winter Hill Gang and his relationship with corrupt FBI agent John Connolly, who grew up with Bulger in the Boston area. As one of the characters says, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me.” This movie, therefore, is not to be seen as a glamourized Hollywood flick but a reflection of a city’s contemporary milieu, a cinematic expansion of a sprawling reflection of crime. At the time of the movie’s release, Bulger was still being pursued by the FBI. He was caught and imprisoned in 2011.
The basic premise of the movie plays out as follows: Irish Mob boss Francis ‘Frank’ Costello (Jack Nicholson) places Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) as a mole within the Massachusetts State Police. Simultaneously, the cops assign undercover state trooper William ‘Billy’ Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) to infiltrate Costello’s crew. When both sides realise the situation, Sullivan and Costigan race to discover the other’s identity before their covers are revealed.
To begin with, what strikes me immediately are the interesting choices of names given to the characters. For instance, Costello is a surname that has been borne by a notable Irish family who claimed descent from Hostilo (or Hostilio) d’Angulo, an Anglo-Norman knight. Here it is given a subversive twist by assigning the name to a drug kingpin. Adding to that are the backgrounds from where the two moles come from. Obscure to each other, both are trainees at the Massachusetts State Police Academy. For Billy, it is a farewell to the ‘Southies’, the South Boston criminal component that shaped him. For Colin, it’s an opportunity to play mole for Costello, who has prepared him for this moment since childhood. The dramatisation intensifies when Billy is informed that he will never wear the Statie uniform due to his petty criminal record. His father figure, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen), needs Billy to go covert and penetrate Costello’s gang. Billy’s true identity will be known just by Queenan and his stern second-in-command, Sergeant. Dignam (a terrific Mark Wahlberg, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Colin, who thinks that the Statie uniform influences you to look like you’re ‘dressed to attack Poland!’ joins the suits led by Captain Ellerby (the dependably eminent Alec Baldwin) in the Special Investigations Unit (SIU). A beautiful coincidence occurs when both Sullivan and Costigan are linked to another character due to a string of events. What follows is a breathtaking set of events that elevate the genre of the gangster drama to a meditation of morality.
In terms of understanding the Irish consciousness in the film, the spirit of James Joyce hovers large over it, with Boston almost appearing as an alternate Dublin. One character declares in the film, “What Freud said about the Irish is: We’re the only people who are impervious to psychoanalysis.”Abdon Pallasch ponders in “The Last Word: Freud, The Irish & The Departed” (2007), that has ‘centuries of oppression by the British, repression by the church, suppression of our sexual urges and a thirst for the drink made us into a race of people who can have lively, jovial arguments about the weather, sports and politics without ever divulging the real issues burning in our souls, if we even admit to ourselves what they are?’
In terms of character study, there are revealing glimpses of the child in the pivotal men. Colin dreads betrayal by Costello, the gangster who filled his young arms with groceries, comics and made him his slave. Billy uses drugs to numb his fear but can’t find anything, be it family, friend, lover, the state or the church to trust. Scorsese also wisely refuses to glamourise the intricate web corruption that extends from Costello’s den of vipers to the State House, whose gold dome Colin sees from the window of his chic apartment on Beacon Hill.
The movie focuses on family and disloyalty, and what constitutes both. The lead characters are antisocial people, however, they are connected to the universe of Boston criminals by blood ties. Each likewise confers no less than one selling the other out, yet the inquiry progresses towards becoming ‘Who are they double-crossing?’ It is not as simple to reply as one may presume. In these dark, murky waters of double agents, moles, and rats, steadfastness isn’t a simple item to check. Each character, at last, acquires his or her destiny, with the exception of maybe one. The movie excels in a game of smoke and mirrors and hatches up a mystery that would make an Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Allen Poe proud. Monahan, a native of Boston himself writes the screenplay with a blazing intensity and in such a finesse manner so that he can drill down the story to the city’s depraved core, theoretically and literally. He has cited the screenplay of David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia” (written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson) as an inspiration to write something which makes a community ponder upon the actions of their people.
Thematically, the movie is very much in line with Scorsese’s trajectory of examining the mafia among various ethnicities, the lapsed human actors of Catholicism, and of bruised masculinity ala “Mean Streets” (1973), “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980) and “Goodfellas” (1990). His misanthrope relationship with Catholicism runs amok in several scenes in the movie. At one point, a character smashes the head of a low ranking gangster with a portrait of Mother Mary in order to extract some information. The climactic rooftop face-off reflects the film’s bleak view of a world where nothing is held sacred. The tile of the movie itself is a nod to the farewell of human souls given during funerals. Scorsese’s another deep love is that of music. That is reflected in the movie’s soundtrack. Opening with The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ (one of Scorsese’s favourite), it incorporates songs from various Irish musicians such as The Beach Boys, The Allman Brothers Band and Roy Buchanan to the brim. The live version of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ from the 1990 Berlin Wall concert (performed by Roger Waters and Van Morrison) is played over a pivotal scene where two characters make love to each other. Howard Shore’s rich original score compliments the soundtrack with a distinct Boston touch. The music is used as a roadmap to give psychological insights into the characters motives and actions. Michael Ballhaus’ subtle, sublime cinematography takes you on an insightful journey into the hearts and minds of the characters hearts and minds. Thelma Schoonmaker’s sharp editing joins the narrative dots of the sprawling jigsaw puzzle of Boston’s terra firma and soul.
Scorsese who has been accused of blasphemy by the Catholic Church for his 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ” has made a sublime masterpiece which addresses the concept of identity and how it affects one’s actions, emotions, self-assurance and even dreams. Unlike most filmmakers, he does not need sensation to make his point. A scene with a vibrating cell phone matches Hitchcock for suspense. Another, deftly borrowed from Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (1949), simply involves a character passing by another at a funeral, the impassive gaze of that character deadlier than a speeding bullet. He directs with his trademark fearlessness, guiding a cast-for-the-ages in a visceral tale of crime and consequences. It is similar to the situation when you’re facing a loaded gun, irrespective of being held by a cop or a criminal and ponder what’s the difference. It’s no wonder that Scorsese is regarded as the greatest living filmmaker because he uses his lifelong passion and knowledge of cinema to make the movies that matter.