A look back at one of the best crime dramas of the 21st century
Martin Scorsese has perfected the art of creating an engrossing crime drama. Films such as Casino, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Irishman are revered as some of the best in the genre. The Departed falls in the same bracket and could quite easily be regarded as one of his best films, and while such blanket statements are open to scrutiny and debate, The Departed is perhaps one of the auteur's best works, in this writer's opinion.. However, there could be no denying the film checks off all departments with flying colours, be it from the screenplay, the directing, and to well-executed performances by the star-studded ensemble including Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Mark Walhberg, Vera Farmiga, and Alec Baldwin.
The film won four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Editing. In other words, it won the top honours a film can receive for it to be regarded as a landmark in cinematic achievement. It is not a run-of-the-mill gangsters and policemen film, nor is it a film that attempts to showcase the linear idea of the ‘good versus evil’ trope. It carefully opens a very nuanced debate on what constitutes a crime, what is good, and questions the impartiality of Lady Justice. This is achieved through the way each character is written, which are in fact caricatures of individuals one might come across in the real world. Martin Sheen’s Queenan is the self-sacrificing good guy, Mark Wahlberg’s Dignam is the abrasive yet realist policeman, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy is the intelligent and morally conflicted hero, Matt Damon’s Colin is the fool with a cause, Alec Baldwin’s Ellerby is the self-righteous ignorant, and Jack Nicholson’ Costello is the self-aware and conniving bad guy.
The story could be identified as a social commentary on the morally grey society being plundered by a few, ignored by others, and held together from complete collapse by a handful of people. These people can be further subcategorised into those that will turn a blind eye on men like Costello for the greater good, and a few others who dedicate their lives to serve and protect the innocent. The film's greatest strengths are how these arcs are perfectly captured through its characters without wandering away from the central storyline - which is the internal investigation into Costello's mole inside the police department.
The story is in fact a loosely based on the Irish gangster from Boston named Whitey Bulger, and the movie itself is a remake of the Korean film Infernal Affairs. Scorsese merged the two concepts to create The Departed. Whitey Bulger’s life was made into a dramatised film called Black Mass, with Johnny Depp playing Bulger - a man who would end up being an informant for the FBI, just like Costello in The Departed. The Irish mob culture in Boston and their rivalry with the Italian mafia in other parts of New York are also hinted at in the narrative of both films. Of course, The Departed is on a higher plane when compared to Black Mass, but the similarities the films share thematically and narratively cannot be denied.
Even after 15 years of its release, there are not many films that have been able to recapture the same level of intensity and the rawness in its depiction of the dark underbelly of organised crime and the perilous lives led by the undercover agents and officers tasked at bringing these criminals to justice. The film is Scorsese’s masterclass in directing and editing, one that will be critically analysed and dissected for film studies for years to come.