When people bring up the works of Scorsese, it is often his 20th century films that are mentioned most. Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990) – these are the films that seem to come to mind. And the protagonists of these films – Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta and Henry Hill – are synonymous with Scorsese’s depiction of ‘fragile masculinity’ on film, a trend that has continued through to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), his most recent feature length film as a director. We get this in spades too in The Departed (a film almost devoid of any women), as Scorsese uses two equal but opposite male protagonists to highlight the two sides of the law. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy – a cop undercover in the Boston Irish Mob, and Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, a rat for the mob working in the Boston state police.
Like many of Scorsese’s best works, this film works as a slow burn, building the tension to a violent and satisfying climactic release. Additionally, having two conflicting viewpoints with which to engage with the film adds a layer of tension to The Departed that doesn’t exist in many mob films, or many undercover cop films for that matter. However, also like many of Scorsese’s films, it could be said that The Departed runs for maybe 10 minutes too long, with some of the cathartic release that the audience has earned ultimately dragging the final minutes of the film somewhat. However, that is a fair price to pay for a film that so skilfully executed. Screenwriter William Monahan masterfully navigates the two intertwining worlds and stories, doling out information as the audience needs it, never too early or late. It is no wonder he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay – without each scene it may well be that the film would not be so satisfying on a narrative level, regardless of any minor qualms.
It is also worth mentioning the outstanding cast (on which apparently about half of the budget was spent). Alongside Damon and DiCaprio is Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Ray Winstone, all giving powerhouse performances that anchor the film in its gritty reality. All of these huge names carry a certain intertextual baggage with them when they appear onscreen, but aided by Scorsese at the helm, it’s not hard to stay immersed in the world of the film.
Is The Departed Scorsese’s best film as a director? Perhaps not. However, I’d have to say it is a top three favourite of mine, and it proves he is just as capable of creating an iconic gangster movie in the 21st century as the Scorsese of the 20th.
The Podfather Score: 8.75/10