Remember Face/Off, the John Woo film about an FBI agent switching faces with a terrorist to get on the inside? He finds out that the terrorist took his face too, and now they’re both on each other’s insides. The Departed is the same thing without the sci-fi (it's even based on a film from Hong Kong). It doesn’t think that people have to go under a knife to trade faces. It doesn’t examine how one man under extraordinary circumstances is forced by his surroundings to act like someone else, but how every single one of us do this every single day.
In The Departed, we’re introduced to young Colin Sullivan as he’s induced into the mob of movie mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). It happens at a five and dime store (Costello buys groceries for his poor grandma – the ice cream soda indoctrination comes creepily easy to him). We get the feeling we’re about to relive Ray Liotta’s expulsion from his own life in Goodfellas. Then little Sullivan is a decorated cop and played by Matt Damon. All of a sudden, Goodfellas is an old man’s game. Sullivan has enough street smarts to act like he’s got something to hide (Scorsese has enough to act like he doesn’t). This makes everyone trust the boy in blue, the movie hero, since all of us do. We see his induction into the Boston special forces unit in a trial by Mark Wahlberg’s fiery mouth. We know he’ll make it big in this world, possibly because we think he’s the main character but probably because we already know he’s a criminal.
Then we see William Costigan Jr.’s meeting. Leonardo DiCaprio can’t lie about who he is like Sullivan can. He’s a man good enough for it to keep him up at night. He wears his story under his eyes. He can’t sling Wahlberg’s insults back at him because he believes in them too much. The police chief (Martin Sheen) sees through him in an instant. “Do you want to look like a cop, or be a cop?” he asks, knowing the answer by the look of him. They offer him the chance to do his life as he’s been doing it but for the right reasons. He’ll go to jail on a petty charge, build up a modest rep, and become the police’s ears in Costello’s mob. They won’t let Costigan look like a cop, since that’s all he wants; they’ll offer him the chance to be one, so long as no one knows. They can’t see that Sullivan isn’t a cop because he looks too little like one.
Now there are two rats. Eighteen minutes and thirty-four seconds in, “The Departed” splashes up on the screen to hard Irish rock and you know someone’s probably going to survive this movie, to refer to those who won’t as the dearly dead.
I don’t usually summarize so much plot, but I figured I could only call The Departed a labyrinth if I least showed you the way in. Everyone is a reluctant participant in their own lives in this movie: it is the plot version of the feeling that your choices have run away with you. Everyone in the film would suffer from ennui if things would stop for a second. Scorsese doesn’t, and Schoonmaker doesn’t either. She clips sounds short in the edit; sometimes a flash will elongate someone’s death like a moving crime scene photo or a conversation will come too fast, like a passing car by our ear. She paces Scorsese’s case file like a briefing. You can really miss things in this movie.
Nicholson positively writhes as the aging mob boss. He reminds us that only nepotism saved the Godfather from his paranoia. Frank Costello might have to kill everyone in his crew if he suspects a spy because he has no family he can trust. He muses on a time he could do that, when he was young enough to act on suspicion, and survive on it. Nicholson warps his mouth around anatomy, slithers into people’s hearts, slides right into a death threat and back into a fatherly grin (which is worse? Joker would have had Costello committed).
“They used to say you could become cops or criminals,” he says, every word like he’s teething on it, “today what I’m saying to you is this: when facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” The film doesn’t know what’s right or wrong. The least likable may be the most rewarded, and even the most good, whatever that means. Scorsese is really saying this to us: he’s asking us to remember Cagney and Robinson and even Brando, to remember how easy it used to be to play the legal as though it was always good and the bad guys like they always done wrong. He might even be talking about some of his own films. With The Departed he’s telling us to pucker up: this ain’t always gonna go your way.
The banter is off the cuff, way the fuck off, slipping off and landing on someone else’s mother and already glibbing about it. Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin spar like they’re sword-fighting with their manhood, dropping fistfuls of obscenities into every frame. They could be their own movie next to DiCaprio’s wilted self-deception. The Departed positively bounces around them, for something so blunt. Costigan and Sullivan are living out the reverse of their own spirits: Costigan is faking toughness so much it’s driving him to sleeplessness, and Sullivan is repressing so much instinct it’s giving him erectile dysfunction. The Departed does this too. It represses its deeper feelings and lays on a pretty face. It self-deceives itself into being a gangster movie. It’s diabolically fun to watch, perhaps because it is in a film what all Scorsese films are about: men discovering themselves. Perhaps destroying everything around them in doing so is Scorsese’s idea of original sin, or a little Italian’s way of making up for his own.
Priests come into The Departed more than once (little boys enter the discussion too). But don’t mistake Scorsese for a scorner. The men in this film (all his films) are fortressed by guilt. Is it by their inability to be true to themselves, or the results of the truth? They used to say that. Today I’m saying, what’s the difference?