Now that he has finally been caught, Whitey Bulger’s most lasting influence may be the way he set the tone for Boston’s pop-culture since the 1970s, most noticeably in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. For all his New York love, Scorsese depicts Boston more accurately than any other director, from the race riots perpetuated by the Busing Crisis to the gold-chains and baggy pants garb of South Boston. Indeed, after Gangs of New York, Scorsese shifted local altogether. Maybe after getting to the roots of the city he felt enough closure to end that part of his directorial years. In The Departed he directs Jack Nicholson for the first time, who plays Frank Costello, an Irish-American gangster (obviously and accurately based on Bulger), who even Bill the Butcher would likely have found very low.
Some consider this Scorsese’s best film. The Academy agreed and finally awarded him his long overdue Oscar. In many ways, The Departed is his most sophisticated work, proving that a true master of craft keeps going strong. This is just as true of Jack Nicholson who adds Frank Costello to his gallery of memorable creeps and could arguably be called his magnum opus. Early in the film he delivers the lingering question of this movie. In his part of the city, what is the difference between cops and criminals indeed?
It should go without saying that The Departed is a film composed of great performances, but what is so delightfully surprising is that it showcases virtually its entire cast at their best. It’s become rare to see a Scorsese film without Leonardo DiCaprio and here he plays Billy Costigan, a police cadet trying to bury his bleak family history, which involves connections with Boston’s underworld.
It’s a testament to the complexity of the story that we feel some level of sympathy for the dirtiest player in the game, Staff Sergeant Sullivan, the police detective played by Matt Damon. He grew up under Costello’s wing, became a police officer, and now operates as Costello’s inside man. This rat is an atypical sort of fellow for Matt Damon and it too may be his best role yet. The most commendable facet of Damon’s performance is the way he captures Sullivan’s somberness with nuance. It’s lonely being on the wrong side of the law and when he graduates he is the only rookie without friends to celebrate.
Ironically, the old straight honest man is the foul-mouthed Sergeant played by Mark Wahlberg. More than anyone else, he knows what’s going on in the department and we never know exactly who he has his eye on.
The more we get to know of Billy Costigan, the more we learn of his criminal background. But that was then, this is now. He wants to be a cop and moves from Southie to the North Shore. In Boston, that’s a big deal. The city values loyalty above all else and lace curtains (the local term for someone who leaves Southie in an attempt to forget where they came from) are not well liked. Costigan is chastised by the department for trying to reinvent himself but it is Sullivan who represents bad ambition and is moving up in the wrong way. Costello helps Sullivan’s career and Sullivan keeps him in the loop, but when Costigan is assigned to infiltrate Costello’s ring by going undercover the two will collide.
It’s hard for Bostonians to let go of old ways and Scorsese illustrates this with many touches. Pay attention to a superficially unimportant scene in which Costigan visits his tube-covered Aunt Kathy. Obviously, she is suffering from lung disease and yet she continues to smoke. Even more revealing is a scene in which the mother of a murdered hood refuses to talk to the police for fear of Costello. It’s uncannily true to life, as Whitey Bulger was known to drive around neighborhoods keeping an eye on things.
Scorsese’s signature is written all over The Departed as well as his love for referencing other movies. Not surprising as this is a remake of Infernal Affairs from Hong Kong. A scene in a deli in which DiCaprio beats two rival mobsters from Providence while incongruously bouncy music plays in the background is classic Scorsese and reminiscent of the scene in Goodfellas in which Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro stomp another gangster while “Atlantis” plays hauntingly in the back.
The Boston locations are curiously brighter than Scorsese’s New York shots, this fitting with the trust and betrayal them dominating the film. All the major players here are two-faced. Costigan earns Costello’s trust only to betray him while Sullivan lies to both the police and to Costello. Hence, the brightness differentiating this from other Scorsese films is deceptive. It buries a dark underworld.
The Departed is not a wholesale criticism of the Boston Police Department but, rather, an honest examination of its history of corruption that delayed the capture of Bulger for decades. Sullivan is himself based on John Connolly, a real FBI agent who made a pact with Bulger. Costigan actually addresses this when he questions why Costello was never arrested for the multiple felonies he already had stacked against him. The only response his superiors can give him is, “We’re building a case.”
The second theme in The Departed supplements that of trust and betrayal. On a secondary level, The Departed is a story about father figures and the dangers of untrustworthy ones. Costigan finds an honest one in Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen, sounding no different than he did in Apocalypse Now). Costello always treated Sullivan like a son, but withheld from him that he was an FBI informant like the real Whitey Bulger was.
But these walls of deception are very thin indeed and create damage when they fall. One of the most exciting mechanisms at work in The Departed is the destruction of lies. There is a brilliant scene in which Costello, suspecting there is an undercover cop in his circle, grills Costigan. The dialogue is gripping thanks in large part to Nicholson’s almost demonic pleasure in tormenting his prey. It’s shot in a closed space, with back to back close ups of DiCaprio’s and Nicholson’s faces, creating an effective sense of entrapment.
Throughout The Departed Scorsese’s skills are fully realized, starting with his use of music. “I’m Shipping up to Boston” became a hit after this movie. Also in play are the director’s allusions to other movies. They work well because Scorsese doesn’t use references simply as a stylistic gimmick. He uses them to draw from our subconscious memories of how those scenes originally made us feel to suggest what we should be feeling now. Most striking is his almost identical recreation of a shower shot from Psycho that came seconds before Janet Leigh’s murder. We know by association that a demise of sorts is coming. Similarly, we know that an allusion to the last shot of The Third Man means the end of something, likely something personal.
However, the most subtle allusion in The Departed may be to The Godfather. After Don Vito dies, the last act in The Godfather dealt with Michael’s cleaning up the family business and eradicating traitors. After the death of Frank Costello, The Departed devotes its final act to similar unfinished business. Here we notice that Sergeant Sullivan is the most complex character in the film. Consider the scene in which he sets up Queenan for a dangerous confrontation and waits nervously for the outcome. What is he thinking? That we are unsure speaks for the complicated conflict of many South Bostonians. Who is a better person, he who is loyal to their upbringing at all costs or he who does the right thing? In The Departed, both options come with a price.