The Departed is really two different movies grafted into one. Movie one is a high concept, tightly plotted movie about cops posing as criminals and criminals posing as cops. The other is a movie about gangsters in Boston, loosely based on the Winter Hill gang.
The Departed is a remake of a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs, about undercover cops and criminals infiltrating a police department. It’s a story that requires geometric precision and careful constriction, and involves overlapping grids of parallel lines and sharp turns. There’s a Euclidian elegance to the plot: a bad guy pretends to be a good guy to impress a bad father figure while a good guy pretends to be a bad guy to impress a good father figure.
But meanwhile, The Departed is also a sprawling character and cultural study of Boston gangsters. And that’s a much sloppier enterprise because you want to give actors space to stretch out and create memorable characters, you want to include cultural touchstones that have more to do with general atmosphere than plot or theme and otherwise deviate from the lines and angles of the plot to give a sense of real characters in a real place.
Take the pre-title sequence, which takes about 18 minutes, largely because it’s trying to set up the two different kinds of stories listed above. Over the opening notes of “Gimme Shelter” (a song Scorsese has an OCD-like fixation on) and archival footage of Boston riots, Nicholson opines on getting ahead in America. It’s a big set-up for a big story about racism, history and violence. Then the music abruptly stops, and we meet Matt Damon as a kid, and we see his seduction into Nicholson’s crew. It’s a story on a much smaller scale about a more finely observed, nuanced idea.
Scorcese is a lot more comfortable with the sprawling character study than the angular plot. He’s not a big plot guy. And that’s OK. Plots can stand in the way of art and fun. One of the best things he and his ‘70s director cronies did to movies was injecting Hollywood plots with realistic and/or naturalistic scenes. Even fairly tight plotted ‘70s movies like The Godfather and Jaws break for non-plot related bursts of humanity. And Scorsese’s best movies usually have barely there plots: a Viet Nam vet drives a cab and goes crazy from isolation, a guy joins the mob and later sort of regrets it, a boxer beats opponents as well as his wife (Scorsese called The Departed his “first movie with a plot.” So take that, Age of Innocence.).
So a lot of what’s good about the Departed is from that second movie, like Jack Nicholson’s bloated, sleazy, charismatic gangster, Marc Wahlberg’s Southie thug cop, the funny one-liners about cranberry juice and firemen. And a lot of what’s wrong about it comes from the first.