Martin Scorsese's The Departed is a curious case: in the director's repertoire of masterpieces, classics and just plain good movies, it ranks, narratively and structurally, as one of his weakest. Yet it is also one of his most vibrant and engaging, to the point that I find myself itching to revisit it more than any of his top-tier films, and I adore all of them. In condensing parts of all three of the Infernal Affairs trilogy in one film (though the main focus is only upon the first in the series), the movie becomes bloated and spends no time really analyzing its characters, but Scorsese manages to turn it into an epic tragedy that mostly overcomes its glaring flaws.
Normally, Scorsese's films follow a protagonist so closely that we end up viewing the entire narrative through the character's often demented point of view. This time, however, he charts the paths of two characters, which forces Scorsese to take a more objective approach. He watches the two moles, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), with rapt curiosity rather than total empathetic involvement, and it's a testament to his mastery of the craft that his camera work does not suffer at all for this drastic shift in style.
Moving outside New York and the Italian scene -- it would have been redundant after GoodFellas so completely charted the Italian mafia -- The Departed instead looks at Boston crime and the influence of the Irish mafia. "I never wanted to be a product of my environment," explains mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) as images of civil turbulence from the '60s flash before our eyes, "I wanted my environment to be a product of me." Costello has taken over the city's crime after driving out black gangs and Italian mafiosos, and the police can't touch him.
He takes young Colin under his wing, and when the lad gets old enough he enrolls in the Police Academy to set himself up as a mole in the department. Meanwhile, Billy joins the force in an attempt to distance himself from his crime-ridden family, only for Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to recruit him to use those ties to infiltrate Costello's organization. They give Costigan enough jail time to make him look legit, then send him back to his family to let him get to work.
Naturally, a film concerning moles primarily concerns identity. The deeper Billy gets into Costello's racket, the more he slowly comes undone under the pressure. When he angrily demands the cops come and bust Costello for any one of the dozens of felonies he's witnessed, Dignam threatens to simply erase his police file and make him just another gangster, and you can see the desperation in DiCaprio's outraged face. Colin begins to dream of a free life when he enters into a relationship with psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), but he's clearly as trapped in Costello's web as Billy. His inability to let people in on his true identity manifests itself when he refuses to let Madolyn display pictures from her childhood when she moves in with him; they only serve to remind him of what he can never have.
There's also a strange paternal bond between Frank and each of the moles. Billy's father and uncle met their demises either directly or indirectly through Costello's actions, and so he places his trust in Bill even when he knows he shouldn't. His relative warmth toward the boy make him more than just the Virgil leading Bill through hell. His bond with Colin is of course even closer, considering he's been nurturing the boy from his adolescence. When Colin contacts Frank, he even calls him Pop so the other cops don't get suspicious.
Scorsese said the film's madcap ending is meant to be a metaphor for the war on terror, which actually makes sense -- surprising, given the over-the-top insanity of the last 20 minutes. The line between cop and criminal disappears in this film when one's identity is muddled, and that could reflect the approval of torture and other atrocities in the name of battling our enemies. The zero-sum bloodbath that closes the film demonstrates that blurring the line to fight the bad guys will destroy us even if we do somehow triumph over the villain.
That final shot, of a rat scurrying across the window, is pathetically obvious, but it's not nearly as bad as some people claim. I've heard people say it ruins the film for them, which baffles me. Still, it shows the cliché in William Monahan's script, which Scorsese successfully underplayed until that moment. Moments like that, combined with the cast's dodgy grasp of the difficult Boston accent and some terrible scenery-chewing from Nicholson, keep The Departed out of the director's upper echelon of work, yet I find myself delighted and completely absorbed by this film.
Where Scorsese's crime dramas are always intimate, tracking one man's ever-unsuccessful attempts to escape the hell of his existence, this dares to be more epic. It brims with the director's signature energy, which was missing in The Aviator and Gangs of New York, though the latter is a better film than this. If nothing else, The Departed demonstrates that, even when working with an under-developed script that reads like a loving Scorsese parody, he can still make something better than most directors could ever hope to craft.