Scorsese does Boston

The Departed
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by William Monahan, based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs
Rated MA 15+, 151 minutes
4 stars

The Departed is a Martin Scorsese film of the classic sort. It has a high body count and moments of sublime excess; the master is on form.

His characters go off the high diving board of life, and on the way down, they tell us a story of human failure and success, as they did in Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and Casino. These are all films about being American, and for Scorsese, that means never knowing when enough is enough; never even knowing why it isn’t enough.

You watch it unfold like a train smash in slow motion – one minute cowering in your seat as Jack Nicholson waves a severed human hand around, and the next, jolted forward in a full tilt montage with Matt Damon and Leo DiCaprio playing cops and robbers in the mean streets of Boston, the camera swirling and the Rolling Stones cranking it out on the soundtrack. It feels so good you just want to shout ‘Yay, Marty, glad you’re back in the saddle’.

There is no-one who depicts the heaven and hell of modern American life, its attractiveness and its horrors, with such honest ambiguity. Scorsese is both appalled and fascinated by it and he sees it in exactly those religious terms – ecstasy and exaltation versus depravity and degradation. Others tells stories; Scorsese tells us modern parables, with God on his right and the devil looking over his shoulder, although I get the feeling that the devil has more input at script conferences.

And yet, The Departed is also a departure – being set in Boston, rather than New York, and based on a 2002 Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs, co-directed by Andrew Lau and Siu Fai Mak, which was set in Hong Kong.

The new script was adapted by William Monahan, who grew up in Boston. Once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to imagine it being set anywhere else. Monahan uses the racial and social tensions of Boston to authenticate his story and characters; it lends him the age and old hatreds he needs to tell all he wants to tell. Scorsese did a similar thing with old New York in Gangs of New York. Eastwood found a similarly fertile soil in Mystic River, another Boston-set film that could serve as next of kin to The Departed.

The plot is simple and elegant, at least to begin with. Two young men, both from the rough south side of Boston, graduate from police training to join the State Troopers – the elite force, not the Boston PD. William Costigan (DiCaprio) has studied hard and shaken off the criminal connections of his Boston Irish family; Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has learned to hide his. He’s been working for Frank Costello (Nicholson), the biggest crime boss in the city, since he was about eleven. His joining the ‘Stateys’ is part of Costello’s long-term planting of moles. Billy Costigan is recruited to do a similar job, against Costello. Senior officer Queenan (Martin Sheen) explains that he will first have to do jail time, to expunge his past as a cop. Neither Sullivan nor Costigan know each other, as they start burrowing. The fact that both sides eventually suspect that their operations have been infiltrated sets up a great premise – rat versus rat.

This much plot is a bit unusual for a Scorsese film (although it does bear some resemblance to Gangs of New York). His earlier gangster movies were usually about the rise and fall of a single character, within the context of a group of men. This one is about a triangle, and the idea of the corrosive lie. In an indirect way, it’s also about the exploitation of the young. Even deeper, there’s a suggestion of a political meaning, although this isn’t well enunciated.

Both young men find sustaining the lies hard, especially Billy. He seeks comfort in prescription drugs and the friendship of the police shrink he has to see as a condition of parole. Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) is also the girlfriend of Colin Sullivan, although she knows nothing about his real activities. There are enough screens and shadows in this story for several movies. Once the parties start undermining each other, it’s even more complicated, and Scorsese’s habit of jumping back and forth in time without visual cues makes it that much more opaque. In a way, it’s a compliment: he trusts we can cope.

The third corner of the triangle is Costello, the master criminal strategist. Costello is one of the most evil and memorable characters of Nicholson’s career, and that’s saying something. Costello’s first meeting with the 11- year-old Sullivan (Zachary Pauliks) takes place in a diner, where Costello is collecting protection money. Scorsese cuts in a flashback scene where Costello and his offsider Mr French (Ray Winstone) execute a man and a woman beside the bay in broad daylight. We don’t know who they are, but we see that Frank enjoys it. This cuts back to his handing Sullivan a bag of free groceries; he knows his father, his uncle, his grandma. Earlier in the same scene he admires the owner’s teenage daughter. ‘You get your periods yet Carmen?’ There’s a lot worse to come. Nicholson has often played the devil, but this character is a real incarnation, and yet Nicholson manages to make him real, both human and monster. Monahan’s dialogue helps, with its tinges of dark humour and even darker truth.

At one point, Costello is grilling Billy about whether he’s the rat. Billy stands up to him and tells him he’s 70, and waning. One of his own men will soon kill him off, someone who believes he can do what Frank does better. Costello looks at this young comer with cold eyes. ‘A lot of people had to die for me to be me,’ says Frank. ‘Do you want to be me?’