“We have a question: Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop? It’s an honest question.”
So Scorsese directed another gangster film. After Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, and more, you’d think this would be old hat. But this movie is brilliantly conceived, masterfully executed, and thoroughly enjoyable. Martin Scorsese takes the helm, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson deliver incredible performances. The art direction, from the cinematography to the soundtrack, are perfect for this movie. It’s not The Godfather (but, really, what is?); but I’ll admit, I had more fun watching The Departed than I’ve had watching any other gangster movie.
The Departed is based on the Hong Kong movie Mou Gaan Dou. Its plot tells the story of two police officers: Billy Costigan, an undercover cop infiltrating an organized crime ring, and Colin Sullivan, a mole in the police department working for that same crime organization. Pretty early on, each of them becomes aware of the existence of the other; but actually identifying either one of them proves much more difficult. It’s like a game of cat and mouse played with the lights out. There’s plenty of danger and tension, and some clever plot twists along the way, all leading up to an ending that was surprising, though not shocking.
You sit there with a mass murderer. A mass murderer. Your heart rate is jacked, and your hand… steady. That’s one thing I figured out about myself in prison. My hand does not shake—ever.
Though the script and dialogue are brilliant here, it’s the execution that really stands out. The Boston they portray is raw and enthralling, and the accents, culture, and even some of the music are all authentically Bostonian. (The title credit over a song from Boston-based band The Dropkick Murphys is one of my favorite title scenes in any movie ever.) Scorsese drew out one of the best performances DiCaprio has ever given, and the other actors aren’t far behind. There were so many things about this movie that were just perfect that I can’t feasibly mention them all. Yes, it’s missing some of the depth of The Godfather, but I’d be hard pressed to find something that really didn’t work in this movie.
DiCaprio described his character Billy Costigan as being in a constant, twenty-four-hour panic attack (which he portrays wonderfully), and you really get the feeling while watching this that he’s never safe, even at times when he should be. We see a bit of that with Damon’s character Colin Sullivan as well. Seeing how truly isolated each of these characters becomes is stressful and nerve-wracking, in the best possible way. This isn’t just a movie with great danger, it’s a movie with great tension and emotional distress as well, and it’s great at making you feel what the characters are feeling.
The Departed really brings the world of organized crime to life; but unlike other gangster movies that seem to show a different world, you get the feeling this story could play out in your backyard. It’s a great modern take on the crime genre that’s a must-see for genre fans, although it remains very accessible and entertaining and may have an appeal broader than that (for those who can stand a little violence with their drama). The movie is gripping, emotional, and thoroughly enjoyable. I see it having a broad appeal. If you haven’t seen it, check it out!
Director: Martin Scorsese
Movies Like The Departed
- Goodfellas – Another great modern crime film (by the same director), this one doesn’t have the cat-and-mouse aspect of The Departed, but gets much deeper into the life of the mob. This one shows a group of thugs at the bottom rungs of the mob ladder, trying to make a name for themselves and going through a lot of the same difficulties as Billy Costigan.
- Heat – An experienced detective and a veteran criminal face off in this crime film that influenced crime films for at least a decade afterward. Equal attention is given to both the detective and the criminal, showing both sides of the conflict much like The Departed.
- Scarface – Though it’s starting to feel a bit dated, Scarface was one of the first crime films to feature a main character who really was not admirable or all that relatable—the main character was undoubtedly the bad guy. The success of Scarface was influential in studios giving the green light to other prominent criminals, including The Departed.
- Gangs of New York – Another Scorsese film, this one is wildly different in setting, taking place in mid-1800s America as rival gangs in New York battle over turf, but is similar in tone and theme to The Departed. A young immigrant infiltrates the rival gang to get revenge on the gang leader for killing his father. I loved this film for a lot of the same reasons I loved The Departed.