It’s not Oscar season if someone isn’t upset. It’s absurd that such-and-such movie didn’t get nominated. That piece of crap got in? Man, insert pandering / boring / uninventive movie here is going to win, isn’t it? For something many cinephiles purport to brush off, we sure care a lot about the Oscars. That’s because they’re a barometer by which more casual moviegoers in our lives measure what’s best. Instead of carping about controversial selections for Best Picture — which could fill a year’s worth of columns no one would read — we figured it would be more interesting to arguments from advocates for these choices. Welcome to Midwest Film Journal’s Oscar Gold.
Despite the hefty heap of acclaim and accolades surrounding it, you won’t have to dig long to discover the bevy of articles labeling The Departed an overrated Best Picture winner. The Telegraph went as far as to name it one of the 10 most overrated films of all time. And Midwest Film Journal’s own Nick Rogers gave the film a decidedly mixed review.
When director Martin Scorsese finally won Best Director at the Academy Awards for the 2006 Boston mob epic, many critics considered it more of a lifetime achievement award to make up for his six previous losses. When he took top honors at the Directors Guild of America Awards (where he’d also been nominated without a win six previous times), he quipped that it was due to The Departed being his “first movie with a plot.”
Out of all the crime films he’s made, The Departed definitely has the most palatable plot, as it focuses more on the right side of the law and revolves around a less morally dubious character.
Based on the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, the film follows Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Massachusetts State Trooper hopeful who goes undercover as a mafia henchman in an effort to catch longtime kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Little does he know Costello has fellow police officer Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) on his side.
Costigan’s family connection to Costello’s crime circle makes him the perfect candidate in the eyes of undercover unit Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). DiCaprio captures the desperation of someone with a bloodstained past striving for a clean slate while Damon conveys the arrogance of a man using his immaculate record to commit dirty deeds. Costigan’s anxiety comes from his urgent need to escape the shadow of his criminal family while Sullivan’s comes from his childlike need to live up to the expectations of the surrogate father he found in Costello.
Although it’s often dismissed as yet another Scorsese crime picture, this one stands out in many ways. For example, Costigan is a more open and vulnerable character than Travis Bickle, Henry Hill or Sam “Ace” Rothstein. Instead of internalizing his angst like those classic Scorsese characters, he doesn’t hesitate to reach out for help, confiding in police psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga). He pours his heart out about the gritty details of his crippling undercover work.
The Departed is a step toward The Irishman rather than a retread into GoodFellas and Casino territory in the sense that it focuses less on the glamour and more on the grisly side of crime. Although he certainly has a devilish charm, Costello is a much more menacing presence than, say, Robert De Niro’s avuncular character in GoodFellas. Nicholson plays him like a wild predator always ready to pounce. When Costigan confronts him about accusations of being a rat, Costello calmly listens before whipping a gun out from under a table.
The film embodies the ticking time bomb under a table that Alfred Hitchcock defined as suspense. The characters act like defusers carefully cutting wires, and the thrill of the film lies in waiting to see what blows up. And boy, does it get explosive! You can picture Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (who also won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) giddily wringing their hands as things go wrong and bodies hit the floor. The third act miraculously manages to be at once tragic and absurd. That’s because it’s fashioned in the tradition of gangster films from the 1930s and ’40s.
Is the film on the nose in showing Nicholson literally sniff around for a rat and ending with one scurrying across a windowsill? Yes, but it’s supposed to be big. In interviews, Scorsese stated that he wanted to evoke the iconic ending of White Heat in which James Cagney stands atop a gas tank and yells, “Look, Ma, top of the world!” To the two cops at the core of The Departed, the top of the world is the gleaming gold dome of the Massachusetts Statehouse, and the film ends on the boldly bleak note that they both crawled like rats to get there.
The Departed was the second Scorsese film I saw in the theater (the first being The Aviator). In fact, I saw it twice on opening weekend, and both viewings left me breathless. I was in high school, and I thought it was so cool. I still do. Whenever I watch it, I can practically feel the Boston breeze and taste Irish beer. It fully immerses you in its seedy world. This deserving Best Picture winner holds up.