#10 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
This is kind of the ideal remake. It takes a concept with great potential that the original didn’t fully realize, deepens it, does more with it, and transplants it to a completely different setting. This isn’t just Infernal Affairs in America, this is Infernal Affairs in Boston. The script by William Monahan, a Boston native, ends up so intimately tied to the reality of the city, its different cultures, locations, and even history that it gives the movie such a wonderfully distinctive flavor that sets it apart from the original. Add in Scorsese’s incredible skill behind the camera, his ability to coax great performances from all of his actors, and the editing prowess of his long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and you’ve got one of the most entertaining mob movies of the past twenty years.
This film follows the original plot point for plot point, and yet they feel like entirely different movies. They’re made differently with vastly different focuses that provide incredibly different experiences. Those who value plot over every other element of narrative would probably gravitate towards Infernal Affairs more naturally, while I see The Departed as a much more well-rounded experience that provides wonderful characters to enjoy. It’s the story of two young men, one a police recruit and the other a protégé of the local mob boss, going undercover in the oppositional organization. There’s Billy Costigan who goes from the police academy to the mob, and then there’s Colin Sullivan, who follows the local mob boss, Frank Costello, around as a very young man who enters the police academy as his mole. The two moles end up on each other’s tails, just behind as they try to figure out who the other is.
Where this movie really differs from its predecessor is ability to really let its characters breathe. That starts with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billly Costigan. A young man of two worlds from the start (his mother lived on the north side of town while he adopted a Southie accent when he went to visit his father), he’s pulled from the police academy and given an undercover job to infiltrate the mob organization of Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson. DiCaprio gives one of his best performances as Costigan, especially deeper in the film when he begins to feel cornered, desperate for a way out. The other side is Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan. Overconfident, probably to mask some inner turmoil (potentially some homosexuality), he’s a star trooper, helped along by Frank who offers up ironclad proof for crimes against unconnected people that Sullivan can present to his bosses and wrap some bows on cases. Sullivan is the much more improved version of Lau. His inner turmoil combined with the actual relationship with Frank he has that steadily frays as Frank gets more and more commanding and paranoid is a fully believable train of thought and action that sells the final act completely.
Both Costigan and Sullivan are at war with themselves. They both want to be good and loyal, but to whom should they be loyal? Should Costigan be loyal to Captain Queenan and Staff Sergeant Dignam who leave him exposed to danger for years? Should he be loyal to Costello who takes him under his wing and ends up trusting him more than anyone else in his organization? Should Sullivan feel support to Costello who treats him terribly, threatens him constantly, and could potentially be an informant to the FBI (like Whitey Bulger, an inspiration for the character)? Should he feel loyalty to Captain Ellerby who promotes him and gives him greater authority? It’s really interesting how often the two characters’ journeys mirror each other, and it never feels heavy handed, like when Costigan has to get his broken arm recast while Sullivan is on the fancy date with Madolyn, the pretty psychologist.
Madolyn represents one of the major improvements from Infernal Affairs. None of the female characters in the original Hong Kong production could have been really called characters. They were thin placeholders for dialogue and little else. Madolyn gets into relationships with both Costigan and Sullivan, and she ends up being a driver for both characters. She meets Sullivan first, falls for his easy charm, moves into his nice apartment overlooking the state capitol, and gets engaged. They seem happy, but he’s at war with himself and he can’t open up to her, outright telling her that he can’t tell her things. Costigan, on the other hand, is a patient that she sees a single time in a meeting so mean spirited but honest that she can’t see herself helping him on a professional manner, but he manages to ask her to coffee immediately afterwards. There comes an honesty between the two that gives Costigan his one safe outlet in a dangerous world. She becomes his guiding light in the fog. Played with intelligence and poise by Vera Farmiga, Madolyn is a very good addition to the story.
Matthew Modine, in this video from the Criterion Collection, said that in theater actors create performances, but in film it is directors who create performances based on their choices of takes. Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello is quite a creation that fits this theory pretty well, I think. From the stories I’ve read of this film’s production, Scorsese gave Nicholson a very wide berth to create Costello. The scene where Costello confronts Costigan on whether he’s a rat or not was filmed with a few props just out of view that Nicholson could pull from if he was feeling like it. The take that Scorsese left in was where he grabbed the gun and pointed it at Costigan. What I’m saying is that Scorsese has learned how to both allow his actors to go off in any direction they want but to piece together a cohesive performance through the chaos. It helps that Nicholson is playing a man who’s steadily feeling cornered and out of control, a psychopath struggling to keep control of his environment, but that could be a recipe for getting lost, like what Scorsese oversaw in New York, New York.
The film’s resolution as the moles work their ways out of their holes, Costello comes to his end, and Madolyn discovers the true natures of the two men in her life, is a surprisingly affecting ending. There’s a lot going on across a fair number of characters, but while ensemble pieces are hard they are far from impossible to pull off. Everyone’s dealing with similar issues, centered around the idea of duality. Even smaller events have this implication like when Costello confronts the older priests about how they abuse young boys, the men of the cloth being corrupted. Costigan finally facing off with Costello’s mole is the ultimate bringing together of all the parts, though, and the suddenness of the turns in this scene fit the story, fill out details, and it never feels cheap.
The Departed is the work of a screenwriter providing concrete settings and intelligent character work to an existing plot while an incredibly talented director builds performances that fill out the characters and pulls all of the other disparate elements into a complete package. It really is a great film.