Presiding over an Irish-American crime syndicate, Francis Costello grooms rising gang member Colin Sullivan to infiltrate the Massachusetts State Police. Drafted into the Special Investigations Unit, Sullivan attempts to sabotage police surveillance of Costello’s cadre of criminals. His task is complicated by the manoeuvrings of another undercover informant, Billy Costigan, assigned by SIU to penetrate the mob. When Costello’s crew narrowly evades a police sting, the double-dealing within both ranks becomes evident. Now Sullivan, like Costigan, must uncover his counterpart’s identity before his own treachery is exposed. Further entanglements develop when both agents fall for Madolyn, a police-appointed psychiatrist. As loyalties fray, the informers’ isolation deepens, with each man desperate not to suffer at the hands of his putative comrades.
From the start, The Departed – a reworking of Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (2002) – bristles with Scorsese’s extroverted technique. Headlong zoom shots, arcing dollies, and bracing swish-pans conjure a whipcrack pace, merging with split-focus diopters and other bravura devices to flaunt technique. Undercutting its slick studio look, The Departed subjects these flashy devices to abrasive principles. Disjunctive editing yields abrupt visual effects, betraying the use of multiple takes to create action and performance. Jagged acoustic patterns interrupt rock-music cues. Overall, this muscular style registers an insistent authorial position – for instance, Scorsese’s coercive approach thrusts the viewer’s eye irresistibly toward core details. (By contrast, the spacious shot design of Infernal Affairs permits a fairly relaxed perusal of the image.) Adorned with self-conscious techniques, The Departed emphatically asserts Scorsese’s personal style.
Although The Departed swerves from its Asian source, it generates further self-consciousness by referencing past traditions. Noir shadows, X-shaped patterns, and passé iris shots gesture nostalgically toward the classic American gangster film. One taut sequence combines smudge motion, atmospheric steam clouds, and bursts of primary colour to evoke the modern Hong Kong policier (though not Infernal Affairs, which favours a cooler, more sedate palette). Acknowledging relevant traditions, Scorsese dovetails stylistic allusions into an aesthetic of rugged virtuosity.
Scorsese’s technical verve implies a casual construction, but The Departed gathers force through robust storytelling. Strutting through a crisp prologue, mob boss Costello articulates a favourite topos of detective fiction: what differentiates cop and crook? This trope will buttress the film’s story, style, and theme. Crucially, it will motivate parallel plotting – affinities and contrasts between the two protagonists crystallized thanks to a fabric of crisscrossing plotlines. Editing patterns likewise foster analogies. By intercutting the main action lines, Scorsese juxtaposes the protagonists’ ineluctable fates. Stylistically, moreover, the director summons pictorial tactics to emphasize character doubling. Presenting each protagonist in echoic compositions, Scorsese hints at likenesses while generating graphic symmetries – here again parading eye-catching technique. Similarly, rhyming bodily gestures ricochet between both lines of action, as do correspondences in the protagonists’ dress and appearance. Out of the cop-crook dualism springs thematic concerns as well. As the identities of Costigan and Sullivan converge, a theme of moral incertitude comes to the fore and undercuts the Manichaeism of the film’s Catholic setting (which here supplants the Buddhist armature of Infernal Affairs).
In unifying story and style The Departed displays a solidly-built overall design, but it also testifies to the way Scorsese adapts both source material and genre conventions to personal tastes. From the cop-and-crook conceit, the auteur elaborates a signature character type – the social outsider, straddling subcultures. Characteristically, Scorsese augments psychological anguish and introduces Catholic guilt to deepen the protagonists’ alienation. Upholstered with authorial traits, The Departed at once invokes Infernal Affairs and fits snugly into the Scorsese canon.
Like its Chinese counterpart, The Departed teems with vivid performances. DiCaprio is palpably wrought up as Costigan, while Damon radiates bravado as the gangland informant, their contrasting traits accentuated by razor-edged crosscutting. Wahlberg’s profane police sergeant, full of crotch-thrusting swagger, exemplifies the moral ambiguity lodged at the film’s centre. Then there is Nicholson, layering his diabolic kingpin in histrionic tones. Nicholson has been castigated by critics as breaking with naturalism, but his expansive, erratic playing style provides the ideal pitch for Costello, signalling degeneracy through disarming shifts in behaviour. The full-blooded performances combine with Monahan’s salty script and Scorsese’s brash stylistics to elevate The Departed beyond the rudiments of genre cinema. Its widespread success reflects the artistry both of its makers and of its ingenious Chinese source.