Bright Lights Film Journal

The Departed: Crime All the Time

Scorsese gets all Irish on our asses, and it works

I admit it. I thought Marty had lost it. I thought he had gone all lazy and cute and Hollywood, with no fire in the belly. And for the first few rounds, I was right. His punches were soft and pretty — too pretty. But then something happened. He got his rhythm back. The punches stung, and they kept coming! They kept coming fast! And his footwork! He was on top of me all the way, making me fight his fight. I figured by the tenth he had to be tiring, but he wasn’t. He just kept coming. Sure he swung a little too hard in the fifteenth, reaching for the knockout that just wasn’t there, but in the end, it was his fight. He’d played it like a pro all the way.

The Departed did start slow. An Irish mobster quoting James Joyce? A Southie quoting Hawthorne? With 1400 SATs? And a Social Register mom? Too cute! Definitely, too cute!

But then things tighten up. The literary allusions disappear. We’re in a world of ugly, angry Irishmen, with two pretty boys, Matt Damon and Leo DiCaprio, trying to keep their noses above the mire. They’re both cops, sort of. Matt’s a hotshot in Special Investigations, but his real action is snitching for Mephistophelian mob boss Jack Nicholson, hamming it up in his fattest role in years. Big Jack’s got the world by the tail, as long as Leo, working undercover as an awfully sharp-looking goon, doesn’t bring him down.1

We get lots of backstory about growing up poor and Irish,2 and about family, and lots about cops and lots about gangsters, but there’s nothing in this film that explains why Matt is a snitch or why Leo wants to go undercover. Everybody’s Irish, but being Irish just doesn’t mean what it used to.3) The Sixties happened, and no one’s anything any more.4 The Irish aren’t poor like they used to be, and the Church, well, it’s been so long since anyone believed a damn thing a priest said that no one can remember when he lost his faith. You can’t miss something you never had, can you?5

For better or for worse, Scorsese doesn’t reach for the sort of macho expressionism that marked/marred films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The Departed is a straight urban thriller, and it works all the better for the lack of baggage.6

There are a few blemishes beyond the Joyce quote. The soundtrack — Marty’s mix tape of classic rock — isn’t quite as cool as he probably thinks it is.7 There’s a real, though brief, low point, when Jack tells Matt that he should think about going back to school. School! When he’s got all the cash he can spend, all the broads he can fuck, and all the booze he can drink? School? School?8

Vera Farmiga’s role as a police shrink is always one step away from being either a cliché or a plot device, or both, but she is awfully cute, and, in her one nude scene, awfully sexy.9 And the end tries too hard. But otherwise The Departed is a good, hard ride all the way.

Second Thoughts

Using the “picture within a picture” device, which I almost always find clumsy, Scorsese shows us the last five seconds of John Ford’s classic of Catholic working-class despair and transcendence, The Informer, which features Victor McLaglen as “Gypo Nolan” crying “Frankie! Frankie! Your mother forgives me!” to a statue of Jesus on the cross.10 In films like Mean Streets and Raging Bull, Scorsese sought to achieve a similar catharsis, but to my mind he never quite managed to bring it off, because the Church never seemed to make much sense to Marty.11 There isn’t much transcendence in The Departed — after the agonies of Gangs of New York, Marty seems to have been looking for a quicker, cleaner shoot — but there’s kind of a hole where the transcendence is supposed to be.12

  1. Nicholson was getting most of the press as The Departed opened, probably because movie reviewers, most of whom are, um, old, like to see an old guy who still knows how to party, but I have to say that it’s Leo who walks away with this picture in the end. The truth is as simple as it is ugly: if you’re tall and thin, you’re cool! Like he wasn’t getting enough tail already! []
  2. The script was by William Monahan (probably Irish) and Siu Fai Mak and Felix Chong (probably not). []
  3. Still, there’s plenty in this picture to make you glad you aren’t Irish. (And if you are Irish, hey, lighten up! You could be Episcopalian! []
  4. Mark Wahlberg, as Sgt. Dignam, is fifties Irish, ready to go out and kill commies and bring their heads back for Mother Mary to hang on the wall. But the commies are gone and Mother Mary, well, I hear she sleeps around. No one to kill, and no one to kill for! What’s an altar boy to do? Wahlberg spends a lot time trashing Leo as a fucking lace-curtain Irish homo, but then disappears two-thirds of the way through the film. In another era, the film would have ended with Dignam saving Leo’s ass, but Scorsese is above such old-fashioned melodrama. In this world, the fix is always on, and the Man, whoever he is, always wins. []
  5. The only priests in the film are a couple of broken-down fairies who couldn’t molest a kitten. Scorsese isn’t hostile to the Church so much as he’s contemptuous of it. []
  6. When Scorsese goes for deep, he usually comes up empty. The Departed isn’t heavy, but I’m liking it more than any of his other films. []
  7. The soundtrack for The Departed is almost identical to the soundtrack for Marty’s first pic,Mean Streets (1973) — the Stones and fifties doo-wop. []
  8. In interviews, Nicholson has described his character as “the incarnation of evil.” I’m guessing he wanted that softened a little. []
  9. Maybe she used a body double, but who gives a shit? I’m willing to be fooled. []
  10. Carol, my Jewish girlfriend in high school, was quite properly appalled by the gross, gauche, and goyish sentimentality of this episode, specifically because Frankie’s mother (Una O’Connor) forgives Gypo because “you didn’t know what you were doing.” She should have forgiven Frankie (which was her Christian duty) even though he did know what he was doing (free will and all that, naturally — Carol knew her Thomas, even if Ford didn’t), and she should have forgiven him for the sin but not the crime, for which it was his Christian duty to accept punishment. (Since poor Gypo was bleeding to death at the time, there wasn’t much doubt that he would be punished.) But film, after all, is more about the senses than the intellect, and to subject both Gypo and the audience to a string of theological niceties at this point, however valid, would have blown the picture’s dramatic intensity sky-high. So enjoy the picture, but maintain the proper subtext, for Carol’s sake. []
  11. Raging Bull ends with a direct quotation from the New Testament, describing the incident of the blind man given sight by Christ. We’re encouraged to believe that Jake La Motta has been humbled by his suffering, pretty much, but it isn’t dramatized all that well. []
  12. The Departed was lifted pretty directly from an Asian flick, Infernal Affairs (not the 1990 Hollywood pic with Richard Gere and Andy Garcia, which wasn’t bad either), which members of the film cognoscenti, which sure don’t include me, say is better. Maybe so, and you can get it through Netflix, along with Infernal Affairs II and Infernal Affairs III. []