Tension, by definition, is mental and emotional strain. It can make an uncomfortable situation or story even more stressful, forcing those who are subjected to beg for any sort of relief. In filmmaking, tension creates rising suspense that helps the story make the journey to its climactic moment more attention-grabbing. When this build-up is done extremely well, the big payoff will give the audience an even greater sense of relief and closure. Many of the most poignant films ever made have been filled to the brim with tension, but there are perhaps so few who are as thrilling of a ride as The Departed.
Made in 2006, the American crime film is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Internal Affairs and was directed by none other than the legendary Martin Scorsese. One of the most prominent issues Martin has frequently incorporated in his films is learning how to live a moral life when you grow up on the front lines of a world that is tough and evil. He manifests this issue in his films by incorporating themes of religion or having religious undertones, and The Departed is by no means any exception.
It can be inferred that Martin’s main religious undertone was inspired by the first part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Inferno. The 14th-Century poem portrays Hell being structured into nine layers, each one becoming progressively harsher than the last depending on the crime (or sin) that person committed. The ninth circle of Hell – the one closest to Satan and considered the most reprehensible – is populated by liars and traitors. They are people who used all of their intellect to selfishly betray those they were meant to be loyal to; in other words, many of them were “rats”. This parallel between the religious violation of being deceitful and the real world “rat” is probably what intrigued Martin to write The Departed.
For those who aren’t familiar, The Departed is a story about two undercover men from opposite sides of the law trying to outwit and expose each other during a case involving Irish mob boss Frank Costello. Colin Sullivan, played by Matt Damon, is one of Costello’s men who serves as his mole within the Boston Police Department. Billy Costigan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the other main character who infiltrates Costello’s gang in order to serve the police.
It is interesting to note that Sullivan and Costigan don’t look like the type of people they really are on the surface. Both men were a product of their respective backgrounds that they were displeased with, but it allows each of them to properly hide in plain sight. Take Costigan for example; he comes from a notoriously rough family known for having criminal ties, which led him to stray away from that lifestyle and pursue a career with the force. Captain Queenam (Martin Sheen) and Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) take advantage of this information and use it as an opportunity for him to sneak into Costello’s gang, utilizing the quirks he picked up on from his previous life. Sullivan’s experience mirrors that of Costigan’s, and this sets up an extremely unique dynamic between these two.
There are numerous points throughout the movie where these two characters become aware of each other’s presence, which adds even further tension amid the fear of them getting outed. Neither one knows who the other is, yet they have to keep fighting against each other’s efforts in order to stay ahead or one-up the other. This tension is perfectly illustrated a little more than halfway through the movie during the “trailing scene”. Costello meets up with Sullivan and gives him a list of names of people working for him, which Costigan needs to intercept. Sullivan maintains a low profile as he is walking through Boston’s Chinatown, to Costigan’s own frustration. The dense crowds at the beginning of this sequence followed by the stillness and silence in the end each add a layer of intensity on top of one another, making it the most attention-grabbing scene throughout the whole film.
What’s even more fascinating is how absorbed Sullivan and Costigan get into their undercover lives by the end of the film. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio really understand how each of their characters evolve as they spend more time within their organizations. Sullivan maintains the cool, level-headed demeanor of a police detective while Costigan’s mental health deteriorates as a result of working closely with the criminals. This evolution is made apparent by the end, when Costigan threatens Sullivan at gunpoint demanding he give him his identity back. This ebb and flow was only made possible because of how believable both actors are in their given roles.
Staying on topic of the performances, Jack Nicholson may have delivered the best one out of the whole ensemble. Martin Scorsese truly knows how to create a compelling villain as shown in many other of his gang-related films, but none are perhaps as frightening or menacing as Nicholson’s Frank Costello. His character is cruel, having no redeeming value in him whatsoever. While there are many reasons that lend to his corrupt personality and lifestyle, the biggest reveal to both Sullivan and Costigan is that he lends information to the FBI regarding members of his own gang and other criminals in exchange for staying out of prison. That’s right, even Costello himself is a rat; it’s almost like lies and deception are major themes this movie explores.
While there isn’t anything groundbreaking in terms of cinematography, there is one key detail that many viewers will miss upon watching this film. In certain scenes and locations, one can see “x’s” plastered right into the frame. From the cross-beam supports at Boston Logan International Airport, to graffiti on a truck that Sullivan walks by in an alleyway, and even boarded up windows inside the abandoned building that’s home to the film’s climax, Scorsese has carefully planted these symbols that give basis for the overall story. Each character is on the hunt for the rat as if they were on some sort of meandering treasure hunt, while they are simultaneously being marked for death that could happen at any given moment.
There are many more specific scenes or aspects that could be pointed out, but ultimately there is no amount of written praise and explanation that can do this film justice. The Departed is arguably Martin Scorsese’s most underrated movie, and when it comes to crime thrillers, few are as compelling as this movie – and none are as filled with tension. The Departed is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
(Cover Photo: The Departed)