When the history of America is told, it’s often portrayed as a series of movements, driven by the people, pushing this country slowly toward an ideal of justice and equality for all. I’d like to believe it was true. But really, that version doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
At the beginning of The Departed, we see images of the violence that erupted in Boston in the seventies when the courts ordered desegregation of the city’s schools. As scenes of chaotic street clashes flash past, we hear a voice telling us how the Irish and the Italians fought to get their piece of America. The narrator’s advice to the Black community is simple.
“No one gives it to you. You have to take it.”
We may not like to think of America this way, but much of the country’s history was written by various warring factions taking power any way they could. This is how the great factories of the industrial era grew. This is how the unions got the factory owners to make concessions. It’s how the country expanded its territory from coast to coast. It’s how our cities were built. It’s nice to think that the US became a world power because of our belief in principles like freedom and democracy, but usually those principles take a back seat to ruthless self-interest.
Director Martin Scorsese has explored this territory before. While morality is crucial to his vision, he knows that high principles often get trampled underfoot in the day to day rat race. He’s fascinated by characters who struggle to survive in a corrupt world, and he doesn’t offer those characters easy choices. The issues aren’t laid out in black and white. It’s not that simple. While The Departed could be described as a story about cops and robbers, the relationship between the two is so complex and incestuous that it makes it difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys. They’re all rolling around in the mud together.
It’s been widely reported that The Departed was inspired by a thriller from Hong Kong called Infernal Affairs, but there’s another source that’s also important. Much of the story is based on the real life career of crime boss Whitey Bulger, who ran most of the illegal activity in Boston for years. Being from Boston himself, screenwriter William Monohan was the perfect choice to take the earlier film’s outline and work it into this new context. And this isn’t just a matter of being familiar with the city. Monahan knows the people, he knows the culture, he knows the life.
Like any city, Boston is made up of various overlapping groups. The Irish have a long history there. And as with any ethnic group, the Irish are divided into different sub-groups. You’ve got the working class guys who live on the south side and cling ferociously to their customs and their culture. Then you’ve got the upper class guys who want to climb into the cozy world of high-end condos and pricey restaurants. And then you’ve got the guys who are stuck in between.
That’s the crux of the conflict in The Departed. It starts with two young men brought up on the south side, both of them desperate to get out. Their escape route takes them to the state police academy, where they both graduate with high marks, but the paths they follow put them on opposite sides of the law. Colin is a mole working for crime boss Frank Costello. Bill is a straight arrow cop assigned to infiltrate Costello’s gang. This symmetrical pairing, the crook playing cop and the cop playing crook, could’ve ended up being a simplistic gimmick. But Monahan reaches deep into these characters, pulling away layer after layer, showing us what makes these two “southies” tick.
Colin is picked up by crime boss Frank Costello as a kid and groomed for the role he’s going to play. Frank is no simpleminded thug. He knows that to stay ahead of the law he needs to have inside information, so he sends Colin to school knowing that he’ll rise quickly in the state police. And Colin has no qualms about playing the role, using his intelligence and his education to build the kind of life he’s always wanted. He dresses well, dines at fine restaurants, and buys a condo that has a view of the Massachusetts State House. Colin gazes out the window at the gold dome that caps the dignified, classical structure. It symbolizes everything he wants, and he’s certain that he can have it all, if he just plays his cards right.
Bill, on the other hand, is an honest man who spends his days with thieves and murderers. He’s chosen for the job, in part, because he learned early on how to adapt to different environments. His parents’ separation meant that even as a kid he led a double life, playing the good student and dutiful son when he was with his mother, then playing the roughneck southie when he hung out with his dad. Bill joined the state police hoping to put all that behind him. He has no family and he wants to start a new life. Unfortunately, his background makes him the perfect choice to infiltrate Costello’s gang.
Thrust into this role, the lawman/thug, means the conflict that’s always troubled him is now at the center of his life. Bill thinks he can handle it, he wants to do the job, but really he’s falling apart. Being from Boston, being Irish, being a man, he tries to play it tough, insisting he has nerves of steel. When he’s by himself, though, he’s popping pills to numb the pain. He has no family. No friends. Even his identity is a question mark. Only his two superiors know who he really is. When one of them dies and the other disappears, Bill is completely isolated.
Questions about identity are at the heart of The Departed. The two main characters are both living a lie. Bill does it from a sense of duty, but Colin does it to get what he wants. He has carefully constructed the persona he presents to the world. Smart and ambitious, he knows that he can rise through the ranks if he maintains the proper image. His boss tells him marriage is one of the keys to success, and Colin, already understanding that, zeros in on a psychologist who works with law enforcement. Does he care for her? Maybe. Will she be useful? Absolutely.
Scorsese has made gangster movies before, but The Departed is very different from Mean Streets or Goodfellas. In those earlier films he used vivid color and kinetic camerawork to pull us into the mobsters’ world. The Departed is much more subdued. Obviously, the look and feel of Boston sets the tone to a degree, but production designer Kristi Zea and art director Terri Carriker-Thayer use the city to create a world of muted colors and subtle hues. The dark wood and weathered brick of the south side is contrasted with the clean, conservative blues and greys that define the offices of the state police. This is carried further by costume designer Sandy Powell. Colin’s crisp suits show that he’s dressing for success, while Bill’s denim jackets and work boots make him fit right in on the south side. In addition, we see all the characters wearing a variety of baseball caps and sweatshirts to let us know whose side they’re taking. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, a veteran of several Scorsese films, seamlessly weaves all this into a coherent, unobtrusive visual fabric. Ballhaus’ cinematography is impressive in its simplicity and directness. He always finds the right tone without ever calling attention to his work.
The movie is called The Departed, and when death isn’t in the foreground it’s hovering in the background. Aside from the parade of corpses and caskets, the characters often talk about those who’ve passed away. Frank asks a man in a bar how his mother’s doing, and the man answers that she’s on her way out. “We all are,” Frank responds jovially. “Act accordingly.” In the final scenes, bodies pile up left and right. At times the killings happen so quickly it takes a minute to figure out what went down. This is one of Scorsese’s most cynical films. There are no winners. By the end of the movie, almost all of the principals are among the departed. In the final shot, the director gives us an image of a golden dome rising in the background as a rat scurries across a railing in the foreground. A symbol of human aspiration side by side with a symbol of human frailty. And in the end, it all adds up to the same thing.