Departed, The

Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 11/05/06 14:08:33

"Of rats and men!"
5 stars (Awesome)

My bearings are not quite with me as I write this, but that is simply because I’m gushing more, thumbing my nose to poise and structure. Gushing- for I truly believe that I’ve just seen one of the most beautifully layered pieces of modern cinema, that deftly and effortlessly sieves together the best of literature & cinema, pop culture & politics, action & emotion. Martin Scorsese’s 'The Departed' does the unthinkable and then goes a step or two further until finally galloping away to instant classic status! Not only does 'The Departed' live-up to its source of insipiration(the Hong Kong trilogy 'Infernal Affairs'), it significantly finds its own unique voice and gets to insurmountable heights with its intelligence and well-earned arrogance that the original never even reached for.

Infernal Affairs was a big hit and received international cult status for its novel storyline of undercover agents on opposite sides, swift pace and psychological insight. In fact, the triumph of the trilogy was its unnatural but fulfilling psychological approach to a material that in less ambitious hands would’ve been suffice at just being a good, taut thriller. It was the moral and ethical dilemma of the central characters that was so appealing about the Infernal Affairs trilogy, made all the more riveting with amazing performances from the two leads- Andy Lau and Tony Leung. Scorsese and his writer William Monahan cleverly use this dilemma, but add unique touches of their own, making the film exclusive.

The central dilemma in both films is based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne quote-
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one is true.”

Billy Costigan(Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan(Matt Damon), both from the Irish American community of Boston are cops with the Massachusetts State Police in different means. Billy, owing to his checkered past and family history, is assigned to undercover duty while Colin’s ‘impeccable’ record allows him to not only be assimilated easily into the official ranks but also steadily rise in ascendancy. The quirk of fate is that Colin is actually a ‘rat’ working for Irish mob boss Frank Costello(Jack Nicholson) while Billy is the mole in Costello’s gang. Things get trickier when both sides realize that they have a mole amidst them. In an ironic twist, Colin is asked to find out Costello’s mole in the department by Special Investigation Unit head Captain Ellerby(Alec Baldwin) while Frank Costello gets increasingly anxious to find out the ‘rat’ amongst his men. Billy and Colin both lead two lives as they struggle with their self-deception, nevertheless putting up a brave face at all times, and trying to find out their counterpart. This paradox is made more complex as Billy and Colin get involved with the same woman, Madolyn Madden(Vera Farmiga). Madolyn, a psychiatrist, becomes Colin’s girlfriend after a whirlwind affair and also happens to be Billy’s psychological counselor. Billy and Colin’s emotional crisis are made evident vis-à-vis their ability to communicate with Madolyn. Colin is more closed, more rigid, afraid of the masculine father prototype while Billy is more vulnerable and open. A childhood picture of Madolyn plays an important role in bringing this out, as Colin avoids the picture while Billy in another scene puts it up higher on a wall. Billy’s vulnerability and subsequent ability to deal with his dilemma is made clear in his discussions on lies and deception with Madolyn, subjects that Colin always evades.

The problem is one of identity. And Scorsese and Monahan amplify this concern by adding subtle but definite references and allusions that hint at the story and subject’s overreaching focus. The Departed is not merely a thriller; it is a wonderful study of identity and one’s quest for it. That this quest is set in the United States of America, a land of no authentic history, is all the more poignant as it addresses the travails of the minority in a heterogenous culture. The Departed is more about acceptance, about assimilation into the American way of life, the American Dream so to speak. Scorsese once again proves that he is the poet laureate of the urban underclass.

Billy and Colin are both representatives of their subtypes. Billy will always be the outsider, the misfit as he is labelled by Sergeant Dignam(Mark Wahlberg). Billy will never be judged for himself, but always by his fathers. The same is the case with Colin. But while Billy’s quest is that of his own identity in a mass of confused personalities, Colin’s aspiration is to claim an assumed identity. Colin’s fascination with the Massachusetts State House, a replacement for the Old State House, is a wonderful allegory. Billy and his thirst for the rooted contrasted with Colin’s desire for the new is a damning argument, as it essentially seals the fate of the individuals with the nation. In the looming shadow of one of America’s most imposing structures, a proxy structure for the one where the Declaration of Independence was once read, is a gloomy reminder of another Nathaniel Hawthorne quote-
“Once in every half-century, at least, a family should be merged into the great, obscure mass of humanity, and forget about its ancestors.”

This is just the tip of the sub-textual richness of The Departed. Colin’s dream of the perfect American life is at odds with his shady role as a ‘rat’. Without giving away any spoilers, allow me to insert yet another Hawthorne quote that perfectly captures the incidents of the final reels-
“A hero cannot be a hero unless in an heroic world.”

The above quote holds true for every character that is deceiving someone, even one’s own self. Literary references abound in The Departed. James Joyce’s Non Serviam is fittingly mouthed by the personification of Satan, Costello…who gallingly quotes Shakespeare as well, “Heavy lies the crown”. There’s one more Hawthorne quote explicitly quoted in the film that I’ll leave you to experience fresh.

Then of course there are the cinematic references. Everything from the masking effect of Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andolou to Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and more are incorporated respectfully into the narrative. The climax actually is a smart tongue-in-cheek nod to Sirk’s above-mentioned film, except that a ‘rat’ replaces the deer!

The performances are uniformly excellent with everyone from DiCaprio to Damon, Nicholson to Sheen and Baldwin to Wahlberg putting in everything into their parts, with Nicholson and Wahlberg sharing the best lines. This is Scorsese’s picture though. And the master is in complete command of his craft here. None of my above exposition even manages to barely scratch the surface of this intricately patterned and deeply layered film. And I’ve not even mentioned the soundtrack, which is typically Scorsese and oh so good.

The Departed is one of the most astounding movies I’ve seen that indicts America for its exhibition of insensitivity and xenophobia. That it does so in an entertaining fashion, no pedantic in-your-face Crash this, is even more commendable. The closing line that Scorsese is perhaps trying to make is this, ‘We are a nation of ‘rats’ and we all are bound by sin and suffering…so why deny anyone their identity.’

In the ambiguous paternity of Madolyn’s baby and the peripheral references to minorities(a gracious acknowledgement of Indians as well) and in the eventual fate of his characters, Scorsese has probably made his most personal film. After years of still being the outsider in Hollywood, would you expect anything else?

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