That Infernal Departed

When The Departed won Best Picture for the year 2006, it assumed an unexpected place in American pop culture. Years later, another Leonardo DiCaprio movie was nominated, The Revenant, preventing its rightful destiny as a beloved cult classic, and not just because it feels like Ravenous. A movie cannot be underrated if it wins Best Picture, and you cannot be its champion, because it’s already got one. This was also Martin Scorsese’s first Best Picture win, meaning that The Departed is, by this most official metric, a more accomplished film than American canon like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. For my part, the year 2006 saw the release of one of the decade’s absolute best movies, Children of Men. The reason Children of Men was not as widely recognized is because it’s science-fiction, my genre. To date, a science-fiction film has never won Best Picture, unless you count The Shape of Water? Or possibly Parasite, which I assume is about an alien. Scifi is overlooked by the old guard. Don’t deny it. And so for me, this is a matter of what’s right and what’s wrong. I cannot think about The Departed without thinking about Children of Men, and how Alfonso Cuaron’s mid-2000s masterpiece was nominated but didn’t win for Best Cinematography, what, just as a joke? And at the same time, The Departed blew right past it and won Best Picture, this movie that is not the director’s most celebrated effort, that gets recognized simply for being the correct genre, that is so weird and bad, and that I really, really like? Well, I don’t know if there’s a mystery here, but even if there isn’t, I’m gonna solve it.

What you might not know is that The Departed is a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs. I’m just kidding: everybody knows that, but everybody also says, “What you might not know.” Stop it! Infernal Affairs is directed by Andrew Lau and stars Andy Lau and Tony Leung, two of the biggest movie stars, not to mention Anthony Wong. What you might not know, before a glance at Wikipedia, is that the title of the movie actually translates to “The Unceasing Path,” a reference to Buddhism. The movie opens with Sutra verse 19, referencing Avici, the lowest level of Hell. The Unceasing Path is about eternal suffering, and that’s where Andy Lau’s character Lau ends up after having killed Tony Leung’s character Chan. The very last scene is a recollection, when two paths diverged. So it’s a crime thriller with the almost overbearing weight of a fable. The gunplay and violence we come to expect as westerners to a Hong Kong film carries this karmic consequence here, just as the roles of police and criminal take on an epic, allegorical dimension. In an essay for the Journal of Global Cultural Studies, author Howard Y.F. Choy compares the state of postcolonial Hong Kong to an identity disorder, citing the screenwriters as sensitive to how Hong Kongers play multiple roles in their lives.

“A crisis of consciousness arises from both [Lau’s] struggle to become a real policeman and [Chan’s] desire to regain his true identity or at least, in his own words, an identity as a normal man. … Striving to end their lives as rats, the spies suffer from schizophrenia as a result of their double espionage agency. The identity crisis is not only about split personality [sic] between good and evil, but also political tensions between the colonizer and the colonized, as well as unfulfilled reconciliation between Chineseness and Britishness.”

Chan has been undercover for ten years despite that the original plan was three. It’s taken a toll, but the regaining of his identity is about more than relief. Unfortunately, it’s also what makes it impossible.

“Lau believes that the best way to annihilate Chan is to strip him of his real identity. What he does not understand is: his enemy is but his other, reversed self. Chan makes the same mistake, only more fatally so. He wants his identity back, but will not let Lau go with impunity. It ends up in a tragedy as the gangster contrives to arrest the police.”

So Infernal Affairs ends on this dreary note, and it makes sense. Broadly speaking, playing for the opposite team influences your loyalties and also shows you a life that may be better.

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One of the things that struck me when watching Infernal Affairs this time, especially with The Departed so recently in mind, is that it feels larger-than-life. Not with outsized personalities, and not just with the melodrama and music video aesthetics, but the theatricality. The movie itself splits its loyalty between the expression of ideas and its chosen level of verisimilitude, which all movies must decide. For the key scene where Lau steps off the elevator, holds up his badge, and says, “I’m a cop,” the director has navigated us to a moment that is not exactly realistic, but plays as it does to get an idea across: style and substance.

And there’s something hallucinogenic about Infernal Affairs, especially once the movie’s nestled into memory. In contrast to the immediacy granted by The Departed’s visual texture, Infernal Affairs has moodier hues and frequently fades in and out of black. And when we kick into high gear, there’s an edginess, with the scratchy post-processing and the rapid cutting. And I can’t really explain it, but there’s something haunting, something uncanny about the film’s depiction of dead bodies. Maybe it’s the way Chan is staring straight ahead in the elevator, or how when he was alive, he couldn’t take his eyes off of Wong, upside-down on the roof of a car. The deaths are shocking, but shock alone isn’t the point. With its metaphors, the spirituality, the sentimentality, the title song being a duet by Andy Lau and Tony Leung, Infernal Affairs is a deeply earnest and ultimately tragic film with resonant, big ideas.

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A year after its release to major success at a time when the industry was flagging, American producers Brad Pitt and Brad Grey picked up Infernal Affairs for a Hollywood remake. To adapt the screenplay, they hired William Monahan, by that point a journalist and novelist already inside the Hollywood system with an option on his book. However, and maybe you can tell by the name, I think what attracted the Brads to Monahan was his origin in Dorchester. I assume the Boston relocation originates with the producers, although I don’t know that for sure, just that Monahan previously did a rewrite on Kingdom of Heaven and had not unfortunately changed that setting to Massachusetts.

It’s an interesting choice, and as you discover when watching Black Mass and reading about Whitey Bulger, the quintessential crime story out of Boston involves snitching. There’s a parallel to be made between the Whitey Bulger stand-in, let’s call him Frank Costello, and the false fronts put up by the two leads, Billy Costigan and Colin Sullivan. Another interesting choice is Martin Scorsese as director, whose involvement ensured the film’s place in cinema history, and helped codify a Boston subgenre of crime thrillers for the 2000s, much like South Central LA in the ‘90s following Boyz n the Hood. However, while Boyz n the Hood was followed by movies we remember, like Juice and Menace II Society, the other Boston movies are pretty forgettable or barely apiece here. I mean, The Boondock Saints? That doesn’t count. And The Town doesn’t replicate any regional mythology; even the crimes depicted don’t stem from a real-world tradition. It could be set anywhere. To date, Spotlight is the definitive Boston movie, in part because it is actually a story of the city, in a way that these other movies are decidedly not. And they don’t have to be, but they should be about something, right?

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As kids, we recreated this cranberry juice scene twice: once in live-action with a mini-DV camera (and an empty water bottle) and once with MS Paint

I’ve tried, over the years, to fit The Departed into an easy, succinct Mad Lib, something I could carry around in my wallet and flip out at any time upon any encounter: “The Departed is… blank,” and nothing ever felt right. “The Departed is good?” No. “The Departed is bad?” No, nothing I enjoy this much should be so easily dismissed. “The Departed is so bad it’s good?” Now we’re getting somewhere, and yes, with that, there’s a certain satisfaction because it’s so removed from the popular opinion. To have such an adverse, frankly rebellious take, well, I feel better about myself. But it’s also imprecise. This movie is not Commando, or Death Wish III, even. So what I think I’m left with is this: “The Departed is weird,” and that I can settle with. Don’t believe me?

“You don’t have any cats. I like that,” and sex scene. “You don’t have any cats, I like that,” sex scene. Okay. And then of course, there’s Jack Nicholson’s entire performance, in which he does things like spit a drink out of his mouth and eat a fly — in the same scene — or maybe he wants to have a cocaine orgy, or say, “This isn’t reality TV!” And speaking of which, then there’s Mark Wahlberg’s entire performance, or rather, and then there’s Mark Wahlberg, and if you’re as lucky as I am to have witnessed the television program “Wahlbergers,” it’s just impossible to look directly at this guy’s face, and it was already difficult. But Wahlberg is on hand to say things like “Rising faster than a 12 year old’s dick.” What? What brings that upon your brain? You notice, also, that The Departed is two and a half hours long, and when a movie is longer than 90 minutes, you start looking for deleted scenes, and what do you know? “Who let this IRA motherfucker in my bar?” What is the point of this scene other than to put it at the end of the trailer? And if we’re just asking questions now, here we go: Why do the characters die all at once with the rhythm of impressive comedic discipline? Why is Freud mentioned three times by three different characters? What are these fucking pantomimes? Why is Whalbergers so aggressi?? And honestly, why is the movie like this? Not its character but the structure itself? Why does music cut in and out across disparate scenes? Why do they talk about killing the Italian gangsters but they don’t show it? Why does it appear we move back and forth in time despite not really doing that? Why? Why? Why? What’s this spotlight thing? What’s these zoom-ins?

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Listen to the president, indistinguishable gentlemen

I went looking for answers, and read through a number of the contemporary reviews aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes. To my surprise, there wasn’t the level of hyperbole I was expecting. The Critic’s Score is marred by a lot of three or four out of five stars, and some negative reviews. Ironically, at least two critics, Kirk Honeycutt for The Hollywood Reporter and Lou Lumenick for The New York Post (great names, by the way) felt refreshed that Scorsese decided to finally stop chasing the Oscar. And I was positively scooped by Dana Stevens at Slate, who also had questions. “Costello pontificates to Costigan about the artistry of John Lennon while brandishing a severed human hand. Unsettling and bizarre, yes, but what does this scene mean? Is Nicholson’s unhinged Costello supposed to personify some generational type, the dark nadir of entitled boomer-ism? Or is he just a random sicko?” Well, I don’t know, Ms. Stevens. Let’s put it on the pile.

Taken as a whole, still, patterns emerged. To my horror, multiple reviews directly mention this “Act accordingly” scene, sometimes weaving it into the review in some clever way. Or not; sometimes they just say it happens and leave you to ruminate. Often, Vera Farmiga’s performance is recognized, always after the breathless praise spent on the guys. Of course, everyone is obligated to make a toss-off statement about Infernal Affairs, and mostly they like it. Some people think it’s overrated, some people think it’s superior, but mostly it’s a sleek, compact little movie and The Departed is if nothing else, bigger. That’s a narrative template which opens up either that the remake was more epic or more bloated. But when we strike at the heart of it, when it comes to the question of “What did you like about The Departed?” I saw almost exactly what I thought I would: vagueness regarding plot or theme elements, and a lack of consensus on what those elements signify. Nobody agrees on what specifically makes The Departed great, and this is my ultimate frustration: the suspicion that what makes it great is external to the movie itself.

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Stay tuned for her awesome global warming plan

When Martin Scorsese directs a gangster movie, it’s a moment, and I’m sympathetic to that. It’s very satisfying when a director indulges in a specialty, because that’s how we come to appreciate them as directors in the first place. I’m introduced to David Cronenberg as the body horror guy, so imagine how incredible it would’ve been if Eastern Promises was followed by The Fly, instead of a further distancing from that original aesthetic. This is what Scorsese does. He has a lot on his mind, but he always comes back to gangsters, and people like gangster movies. There’s a familiarity there, and at the movies, that means comfort more than contempt. Ironically, we see superhero movies for the same reason we see gangster movies: we know what to expect, and sometimes even demand what we expect. In this case, it’s actually the former that’s the problem, just the knowing. We are experts, we’ve been conditioned by Scorsese gangster movies in the past. Even if presented with contradictory information, it’s gonna take a lot for us to respond to The Departed as anything other than a Scorsese gangster movie.

It’s just what we do. There is no pure viewing experience. We go in with an agenda. Nowadays, even to like or dislike a movie is a political stance, the universe apparently not content with the truism that “all art is political,” probably because of all the denying. I don’t like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and on no salt planet am I gonna object if you find me questionable because of that. Just the same, the agenda going into The Departed was that it’s a comeback. I doubt if I saw a single critic reach the end of their review without name-dropping Gangs of New York and The Aviator. Again, Dana Stevens beat me to the punch here: “[The Departed] feels like the kind of movie critics might overpraise, if only because it’s nice to see Scorsese back in the saddle.” There became a The Departed-shaped hole in American cinema, quickly filled. Not only can it not be bad, even if it is, the badness is on purpose. If you think that sounds silly, how quickly then we forget The Irishman. People didn’t just rationalize the notorious VFX, they convinced themselves it was a stroke of awesome artistic auteurism when I wonder, if The Irishman had more realistic CGI, or a different actor playing the younger versions of the character, would anybody really be sitting there, thinking, “You know what would’ve made this better? If it looked like a cartoon.”

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Take it from the guy who doesn’t know what onion rings are

If I could take the moral high ground for a moment, I find this disrespectful. Do you really think this is what Martin Scorsese wants? I mean, maybe. You work really hard in the beginning of your career and cross a threshold where critics stop criticizing you, provided you give the people what they want. It’s not even an arrest of our critical faculties, it’s a resignation to imprecise contact with a deific being — I mean, if you touch him, you’ll burn your fingers. I’d like to say that modern film criticism is irrevocably drawn from auteur theory, but I think I’m comfortable with just saying, “We really like auteur theory.” We’ve internalized it. So even though we understand that some fucking Chinese guys came up the story and that William Monahan wrote the screenplay, we’ll still say things like: “Is Scorsese desperate? This screenplay has the scent of it.” Excuse me? You disliked the writing or the story, but when it comes to Scorsese’s culpability, are you characterizing his selecting this screenplay as desperate, and that translates to the experience on-screen? How can you call the rat at the end a Scorsese moment if it was in the fucking script? He just gets all the credit and all the blame no matter what? Sure, you can quibble with “Oh, he could’ve cut it out, and that he didn’t… constitutes direction,” but that’s weak. I’d rather focus on what he actually does as a director, you know, partition the discipline as something, not everything. In this Boston-set, fucking Goof Troop of a movie, where do we locate Martin Scorsese? Well, I guess that’s the problem: I don’t know.

But what I do know is this: There are movies we decide are important and movies we decide are not, though sometimes that decision comes from straining acrobatics while the have-nots spin out of something less conscious. No grand conspiracy; rejection is really easy. Academy voters had to be pressured to watch Parasite because they weren’t watching it, and that would’ve had the same effect as if they watched and dismissed it like some kind of Children of Men. Did we see Hustlers or The Farewell? I don’t know, but we saw Joker. The 2020 Oscars were a quintessential showcase for our biases. At the time, I didn’t get too upset, but that’s because I had a horse in the race. With some perspective, I see it was the triumph of the establishment over the new school, over women’s voices especially. You had Tarantino and Scorsese, you had a Scorsesean, you had a World War I movie, a dad movie — it was a big dollop of vanilla ice cream, no jimmies, but maybe a little bit of kimchi by way of a film’s global, unanimous celebration. That’s what it takes for an outsider to be welcomed in, to stand alongside those whose seats were reserved, to then be seen by a larger audience, be recognized and help shape what we will subsequently recognize. Somebody somewhere really wants us to keep recognizing gangsters and soldiers and psycho killer guys. You know, those genres we’re always saying women have no place in? Historical fucking accuracy? In 2019, we saw a lot of interesting characters, new perspectives, fascinating takes, and we didn’t recognize them — not with trophies, I mean literally recognize them, see that they were there and mattered because there is no Goodfellas to warm the seat for Hustlers. In fact, there’s just Goodfellas. We kept saying it was like a female Goodfellas. And when I say “we,” apparently I mean J. Lo and Constance Wu.

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“Act accordingly.”

Movie criticism is attractive to a certain kind of person because we can allow a film to act as our canvas for expressing grand ideas in a smart, poetic way. It’s when Roger Ebert says, of The Departed, “The telling of their stories involves a moral labyrinth, in which good and evil wear each other’s masks.” It’s when Peter Travers commends Scorsese for striving always and “passionately to make movies that matter,” as The Departed offers “a defiantly uncompromised vision of a society rotting from the inside,” a “world where nothing is held sacred.” It’s when Honeycutt says that “Scorsese’s relaxed energy infuses the film with excitement in every frame, thus elevating a gangster story to the level of tragedy.” Damn it, Honeycutt. It’s when I decide that a movie like, I don’t know, Strange Days is “about the dangers of losing touch with your world, your life, your society, and the good things that come out of redemption.” The good things that come out of redemption, not like the bad things. I was 17. Which means: too old.

We have to be careful when we insist a movie is about something, because there’s a difference between a movie containing themes and those themes meaning anything, and that’s a difference we don’t always respect. I mean, how else do you explain The Departed’s “lost-son motif” or “its Judas motif,” arrayed with “ample psychological overtones” in “the death grip of virtuoso storytelling”? So, goddamn it, from “moral labyrinth” now through the Bible, what does any of this mean? Now I don’t just want to know specifically what you liked about The Departed, which you didn’t tell me, but what is The Departed about? Because in an unorthodox move, The Departed does not involve the same kind of spiritual themes as Infernal Affairs. Although Martin Scorsese is noted for his theological explorations in and out of his movies, to posit a world that is post-spiritual is truer to Boston in the wake of the Catholic child abuse scandals. But we’ve jettisoned our original main idea, and all that rushes in to fill the vacuum is “moral labyrinth.” Vagueness. This, I think, is where our bias takes us. We arrive at Scorsese’s comeback and expect to find that Big Reason, the nexus of the film’s importance, so we slash and stab at our canvas with a self-congratulatory mania, as if we can will it into being, like it’s a fucking race to see who can sound the smartest.

And nowhere in these reviews do I get an engagement with the weirdness, our deleted scenes or the music editing or the bad female character. How could we possibly make space for the inherent dementedness when we’re so busy erecting our Ebenezer to the Big Reason? Because remember: when we ask “What is the purpose of all this weird, bad shit?” we’re asking “What is the Oscar-winning purpose?” “What is the Oscar-excluding purpose,” with regards to everyone else, as we’re locking out lesser genres and marginalized voices? And you know what’s really fucking funny about this? It’s not fair to The Departed. Our imprecise response excuses the quirks which might actually be calling out for scrutiny. Maybe The Departed doesn’t want to be a Great Film. Did you even ask it? Or did you just weigh it with the baggage of a legacy kid? The Departed could give two fucks about Goodfellas, or maybe 200.

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A reminder that Anthony Anderson is in this movie

Okay, look, it’s time for a confession. The Departed was the very first R-rated movie I saw in theaters, and that’s a special thing. I believe my mother uncharacteristically encouraged me to see it, possibly because like Monahan, she’s from Dorchester as well. I went with a friend of mine to the Hoyt’s in Bellingham, Massachusetts, and we laughed through the entire thing. The swearing, the violence, and yes, the weirdness, it was an uproariously good time. Next year, our accidental comedy won the Oscar, setting me down this road. But inevitably, when The Departed would come on TV, especially if edited for broadcast, I would sit down and watch it and be entertained every time. Was I being ironic? Shouldn’t I know? The reason I could never go with “so bad it’s good” is because that suggests that movies which have such an effect on me, which are so entertaining, can be made by accident, and that’s just not true. There has to be a method to this madness. It’s been a long time, so, with this most recent viewing, does anything made blurry by nostalgia and contempt become clear? Yeah, nostalgia and contempt. What does that taste like?

At the close of this chase scene, Sullivan turns and a wide shot reveals the surveillance camera — good economy. Reaction shot from Sullivan, scene should cut. It does not. Instead, we get something characteristically, clinically The Departed: we then cut to this punch-in on the camera with a musical flourish and a sound effect. This is redundant information — assuming the whole point is to establish Sullivan seeing the camera. We find this moment on page 79 of the script: “No sign of Billy, no sign of a follower. But he does notice: CCTV cameras at the intersection. He spins and gets out of there.” As we see, that’s not exactly what happened, and just like that, we found him. We found Martin Scorsese. This is more than an insert shot, it’s punctuation, and it was his choice. So he’s here, let’s ask him, what does it mean? I don’t know, but somehow, it’s gonna start to make sense to me as we continue on.

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One of the great things about The Departed — the tech, specifically the cell phones and their sound design

Next question, why is the movie structured the way it is? In terms of punctuation and the language of editing, the grammar is unusual. And in fact the film is not built of scenes but sequences of montages. Characterization happens in bursts, which is actually a great opportunity for actors to do a lot with a little. So much is witnessed in glimpses, even punch-ins, it’s all dizzying and floating — it’s fractured, like the unseen executions of the Italian gangsters. And so, when Billy starts to use drugs, the fractured chaos plays back in our minds, too. We’re accessing a headspace, and maybe that’s why the music cuts in and out seemingly at random. When we’ve moved on but then music from the previous scene returns, we’re in that mood again, that energy, now transplanted to a new environment.

One of the quirks I didn’t raise at the top is the Matt Damon character, Colin Sullivan, because I think it no longer counts. In 2006, his use of homophobic slurs felt edgy, but in 2020, it just comes off as pathetic. I understand there’s speculation that Sullivan is gay, and nobody likes that theory, so that’s about it there. Sullivan comes off as very charming. Elerby likes him because he sees himself in the rising star. The facade works on a guy like this. and for a girl like this, the receptionist outside Queenan’s office, who barely looks at Costigan. And Sullivan scores a date with Vera Farmiga’s character by being completely obnoxious, which was the essence of the quirk. And that character’s name is Dr. Madolyn Madden. Anyway, I get it now: we’re not supposed to like this guy, and despite what the people around him say, and unlike his Hong Kong equivalent, he’s really not likeable. He’s petty, he’s impatient, when he talks with Frank he’s easily cowed and panicked, like a child, and he falls upwards. I sympathized with him on the original viewing because he was just a kid when he was recruited, and what else was he gonna do? But that doesn’t figure into his character as an adult. He’s not a trapped kid trying to escape the life, he’s actively working to use this life to get on top. And this points to the theme of masks, of facades, but more specifically, that even though Sullivan’s mask sucks and it’s so obvious to us that he’s a scumbag, everyone loves him because they’ve been told to love him. He’s the guy.

That makes him a great parallel to Costigan. Now, Costigan’s surprise death is foreshadowed, and not just by the nigh useless directorial signature — that’s just what Logan looks like, there are Xs. Unlike the upward fall of Sullivan, Costigan is subject to the comedy of errors inappropriately nestled inside this gangster drama. You think he’s gonna be a badass, but his episodes of violence are undercut by the silliness that delighted two 13 year old kids at Hoyt’s once upon a time: he breaks his arm punching a guy, he gets hit with a toy duck. You would never describe him as “cool,” especially under pressure. Another unexpectedly comedic scene is the revelation that Costello is an informant for the FBI — important exposition which should be weighed by drama, but listen to this music. And just look at Leo. He is freaking the fuck out and auditioning for every one of his future roles. For Costigan, nothing is ever gonna work out. He’s not gonna hack it, he doesn’t belong here. And we feel that all the time. In The Departed, you look at an incriminating camera and it looks right back at you, you punch someone and it hurts you — the world is too tactile, but like shattered glass, and the points turn inward on Costigan like a crown of thorns. What the fuck?

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South Boston. What fresh hell is this?

And then there’s the big riddle of Jack Nicholson’s performance, which divided critics most of all. Was he brilliant, was he a ham? My late grandfather on my mom’s side took exception to the portrayal, because he felt that Whitey Bulger was more respectable, not a slob who’s always covered in something. But this depiction of a criminal kingpin who everyone must respect despite his lack of respectability, to me, rings pitch perfect. He’s a tyrant, and he’s grotesque, and even though we spend an inordinate amount of time on his antics, I don’t get the sense that he enjoys any of it. I think the top of the food chain is a dead end. But what’s really important about Costello is that he’s unpredictable. All of the hamminess flanks and supports his enigma, that he speaks in riddles, such that every conversation between himself and Costigan feels like a test.

So with all that crunching, I’ve come upon what I think is the Big Reason. I believe The Departed is ultimately saying this: No, Frank, you are a product of your environment. No matter how far or how fast you climb the ladder, you never make your environment a product of you. Costello’s self-mythologizing that Irish-Americans succeeded by doing what African-Americans didn’t is as false as we understand it as viewers. You are defined by where you were born and who your family is. Everybody knows everybody’s father, and good cop/bad cop here convinced Costigan he’d never amount to anything — but also that he was too smart? I didn’t really get that.

The inescapability of fate secures the tragic ending, but also throughout frays that the double agent facade. In this town, everybody sees who you are, and that makes pretending to be someone you’re not additionally complicated, on top of the life or death stakes. This is important because that’s the premise of the movie, two double agents going up against each other, and sometimes we get lost in the weeds of themes and big reasons and we start describing any movie, not the one we’re actually looking at. The Departed might be a story of “society rotting from the inside,” but that’s also true of Zootopia. First and foremost, The Departed is a story about two double agents going up against each other — let’s not forget its specificity. Ironically, this is when I start thinking about Spotlight again. Now, Spotlight is a movie that makes my job here a lot easier because it pauses to lay its thesis in the text. Or rather, all the text is spoken plainly and it’s properly contextualized.

“This city, these people, making the rest of us feel like we don’t belong. But they’re not better than us. Look how they treat their children. Mark my words, Mr. Rezendes, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Boston is a city of insiders. But the point of the scene isn’t just to say that, because otherwise this movie wouldn’t need to exist; we could simply read the Boston Globe reporting. The point is how Mitch Garabedian has internalized the marginalization. That’s our vector — an emotional vector — into understanding the institutional failure that fosters our problem of systemic child abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. It accounts for the invisibility of victims and it illustrates power at once immeasurable and deniable. And that is Spotlight’s big picture, its Big Reason, the thing we can hold up and say, “Did you see Spotlight? You should see Spotlight.”

Spotlight

In The Departed, this same idea doesn’t point to anything. The idea is the conclusion. We’re thinking about nothing, but fuck, that really felt like a good movie because it was thrilling. In a city of insiders, your mask is all that stands between you and a bullet, so for people around a lot of bullets, pull that mask on tight. And that’s the point. That is why The Departed should win the Oscar, not because it’s the study of “a world where nothing is held sacred” like in literally everything, but rather because, like Todd McCarthy says, “it’s a wonderful setup for a pressurized, high-wire drama … impressively constructed like a trap.” And I would add almost recklessly constructed, for the maximum possible tension. That’s what a director can do. Of course, Children of Men is not just tense, but harrowing, but that’s okay, I’m over it.

It’s been 13 years. And after all this time, it’s really strange what’s happened. The movie that I remember being so bizarre, I mean so fucking weird that the critical consensus bordered on gaslighting — but not really, that’s not a term I’d like to bastardize — it’s now demystified. It makes sense now, and honestly, it feels a lot less special. I may understand it, when most of the fun came from being bewildered. So, I think it’s time for me to let this one go. I’m at peace. The premise of Infernal Affairs and The Departed is high-concept, it draws you in, and the American remake wrings a lot of tension and bombast out of that premise. People wear masks, and it’s not even necessarily that the people around Sullivan and Costigan see them for who they are, like I’d mentioned, but that they see what they want to see. And so, just as they were told that Costigan is a loser and Sullivan is their guy, we were told that The Departed is a big important movie. It’s got the genre, it’s got the director, it’s got the narrative. I knew his father.

Andrew Lau would go on to direct an international film executive-produced by Martin Scorsese. The movie itself didn’t fare so well, but that sort of championing foreign talent is exactly what I’d expect from the guy who includes Takashi Miike’s Audition as an Easter Egg in The Departed. He’s a guy who loves movies, and a love that transcends cultural barriers comes from the head as well as the heart.

References

Schizophrenic Hong Kong: Postcolonial Identity Crisis in the Infernal Affairs Trilogy,” by Howard Y.F. Choy
“To the natives of Hong Kong, this postcolonial turn is actually less a decolonization than a recolonization of the capitalist Cantonese city by the mainland Mandarin master. They find themselves helplessly trapped in the dual nationality of overseas British and Chinese nationals. This existential agony is deftly cinematized in the Infernal Affairs trilogy under the disguise of a police epic.”

Of Moles and Men,” by Dana Stevens
The Departed isn’t the masterpiece I have the feeling some may hail it as. It feels like the kind of movie critics might overpraise, if only because it’s nice to see Scorsese back in the saddle and a treat to find a cops-and-robbers thriller with some energy and wit. But even so, it’s a stylish head rush of a movie that flies by, even at two-and-a-half hours, and keeps turning the knife (and your stomach) up to the final scene.”

‘The Town’: Is Charlestown really America’s ‘bank robbery capital’?,” by Patricia Mandell
The Town is Ben Affleck’s new thriller set in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. But residents beg to differ with the movie’s portrayal of the area.”

Further Reading

Episode 35 – The Departed,” Let’s Watch 2 Movies
This is one of the funniest episodes of a podcast I’ve ever heard, Maddy Myers and Mary Ellen’s astonishment at our Boston crime epic. This is where I got the “Hot for State House” note in the video, and Mary Ellen is the first person I’ve ever encountered who feels the exact same way about this movie and Children of Men as I do. She’s very upset about it, and I am, too.

Boston Accent
Seth Meyers has a few of these fake trailers, including “Newspaper Movie” and “Oscar Bait.” I think “White Savior” is the real winner, but I have a strong fondness for “Boston Accent.” This is where he lists off the canon of Boston crime movies, a good off-hand reference, going on to note that Good Will Hunting has a lot of the same themes, though not the same level of violence. Meyers’s upscale Kennedy-type Boston accent is golden.

Overnight
If you’ve seen The Boondock Saints — or at least half of it like I have — you don’t wonder why the director barely worked again, but you should. When Boston bartender Troy Duffy’s screenplay was plucked out of obscurity by a Hollywood megalomaniac, the rising star took immediately to pissing off every last person — Hollywood regulars, his own friends, and indeed Harvey Weinstein. In the years since #MeToo, our sympathies may shift upon watching Overnight, but one man’s self-destruction, miraculously captured on tape, is endlessly compelling to watch.

Notes on an American Film Director at Work: Martin Scorsese
There was a moment during the making of “That Infernal Departed” video where I said, “I’d love some BTS footage of Martin Scorsese directing The Departed, and lo. In fact, two days before I had that thought, Jonas Mekas’s documentary popped up on Vimeo.

Post-Script

The crux of the issue here in the comparison between the two movies is that in The Departed, events happen and movements occur that previously signified something, and now do not. So it’s not profundity but a kind of shock when Leo gets killed, or when Matt Damon shoots Chase. We wonder — what does that mean, even if not consciously. It’s almost like being trapped, reconciling with a story stripped of meaning, and I think that’s part of the accidental brilliance. The Departed should not work — the big picture is sabotaged by adaptation — and yet it’s effective.


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