Time is a force like battery acid, corrosive. Frequently, films are released to raves and fawning admiration, only to soon fall into obscurity, hardly seen purposefully by anyone except maybe the Turner Classic Movies guy. Other times films will be positively received initially, and then quickly become nearly universally despised, touted as “overrated tripe” or the even more cutting, “lame.” For a cinephile, to see any film, even the most overrated and lame of them all, succumb to a fate like this is a depressing and dispiriting thing to witness. To see a truly great film, a film that honestly earned its accolades during its postnatal run of fame, tumble into the musty cellar of cinematic apathy is a tragedy that frustrates beyond words.
In the 2007 Academy Awards, Martin Scorsese’s gangster-pic The Departed took home the grand prize of Best Picture, with Scorsese himself seizing a directing trophy. Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect 4/4 stars. The film was what is commonly referred to as a “critical darling.” Yet, 10 years after its release, it seems to have been affected fairly negatively by the passage of time, falling victim to the seas of “overrateds” and “lames” that the vocal film community shouts from the internet rooftops. Googling the film, only the sixth result is an article telling of The Departed’s supposed overrated nature.
This isn’t really much of a surprise. Backlash against films, especially former “critical darlings,” in these days of online hyper-discourse is more than common. Given the current (admittedly deserved) cynicism towards the Academy, past Best Picture winners are even more vulnerable to this backlash. Yet, The Departed is not the enemy here. It is not a flawless film, but it is still chock full of brilliance that only the great Scorsese could ever muster. It still zings and pops with energy and a kind of beautifully raw sadistic pleasure rarely seen in modern film. It might not be Scorsese’s masterpiece, but it is indeed masterful. On its twentieth anniversary, The Departed deserves a reappraisal to its reappraisal.
At its core, it is a study of how once pristine and robust structures can rot and warp over time. The film begins with Matt Damon as a young Boston twerp, being taken under the wing of Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), who is the charismatic, volcanic local crime boss. Boston itself has become this fallow breeding ground for the very immorality and crime personified in Frank. The church, that looming bastion of molestation, has abandoned the city, so where does it turn? To the smiling man with the gun. He will keep them safe.
The police, at least at first, appear to be somewhat trustworthy. Yet they, like Boston itself, fall to shady practices and moral degradation. Almost as soon as Damon’s Colin Sullivan, the mob rat, is brought onto the force, Martin Sheen’s character, the symbol of the true and right ways of old, is summarily killed by Costello’s men. The real tragedy is that of Leonardo Dicaprio’s character, the earnest and painfully naive Billy Costigan. Born into a family of killers and sinners, Billy sought a path of honest work and joining the Boston PD. Billy is one of the few truly pure characters in the film, yet he too is dispatched unceremoniously in an elevator by some no-name crony of Costello’s.
In some ways the character of Colin Sullivan isn’t all that different from Billy Costigan. Sullivan, too, was a victim of his acidic circumstances, his crumbling society. Scorsese has spent near his entire career documenting the ends of things (see: Casino; New York, New York; and to a certain extent, Raging Bull), but only in The Departed does he deal with this cinematic eschatology so broadly, encompassing the social, religious, and personal scopes of the issue. Scorsese shows us the fall of Boston from every perspective: cop and criminal, husband and wife.
Beyond its thematic importance, The Departed is just a really fun watch. After a series of some more austere historical pictures, The Departed shows Scorsese letting loose a little and re-imbuing his celluloid with that infectious, coke-addled style he was once so famous for. Perhaps nothing is more indicative of the film’s wonderfully unhinged nature than the casting of Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello. Nicholson is cinema’s id; its default whack-o. His hysterical smile and exaggerated gesticulations are thus perfect for Costello. He is everything wrong with the city blown-up to something nearing satire. At one point, Nicholson takes his dick out in a pornographic movie theater and accosts Matt Damon with it. Earlier in the film, Nicholson speaks to Leonardo DiCaprio while holding a severed hand, using the bloody limb to motion and point as if it was his own. It’s absurd, but it’s absurd in the best way possible.
Ten years after its release, The Departed still resounds like few other films of its era. All things lose stature with time. This is true of everything from American presidents to breakfast cereal, and of course, movies. It is unfortunate that The Departed has run this course, because unlike presidents and cereal, it is timeless.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures