Inspired by 2002's acclaimed Hong Kong action film Infernal Affairs, The Departed has been reshaped as an American gangster movie by (who else?) director Martin Scorsese. It tells the story of two young Boston cops working undercover on perpendicular paths.
Brought under the wing of brutal Irish crime boss Frank Costello as a kid, Colin Sullivan has been positioned as an upstanding citizen for the express purpose of sending him to the police academy and landing him as a mole for the mob. Quickly rising through the ranks of the Massachusetts State Police organized crime unit, the loyal Sullivan is in the perfect spot to keep Costello one step ahead of the law.
Billy Costigan, on the other hand, really wants to serve in law enforcement, in spite of the fact that his extended family is tainted by involvement with Costello's criminal activities. Thus, he's a logical choice to infiltrate Costello's inner circle as informant. In other words, both Sullivan and Costigan are working undercover for the other side—and neither knows who the other is. When Costello and the police become aware they each have "rats" on the inside, the race is on for Costigan and Sullivan to uncover each other before one or the other gets exposed and, likely, added to the pile of bodies accumulating throughout the story.
Further tightening the noose, both develop a relationship with Madolyn, a police psychologist who is, ironically, unaware of the duplicitous lives her men are leading.
In spite of the film's tag line—"Cops or criminals. When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?"—delivered by mob boss Frank Costello, The Departed mostly avoids the moral relativism embraced by many crime stories. The film remains clear on the point that Costello and his goons are bad guys. We're never urged to root for cop-rat Sullivan, unswervingly loyal to Costello, or against mob-rat Costigan, relentlessly ready to do his duty.
Although steeped in objectionable content—much of it flowing from Costello's unambiguous evil—the film wants viewers to keep rooting for justice, albeit in its most brutal, terminal form. Characters willing to risk their lives for good are heralded; those willing to kill for their own gain are not.
South Boston locals on both sides of the law share an Irish-Catholic heritage, even if few of them practice it. As a kid, Sullivan serves as an altar boy. We hear Scripture at more than one funeral and the camera lingers on a card on a casket that reads, "Heaven holds the faithful departed." Costello's girlfriend talks about going to confession and choir practice.
On the other side of the film's deep spiritual divide, and in keeping with his deviant nature, is Costello who flippantly mocks priests as pederasts. He comments on his sexual activities with a nun before she took her vows, and delivers a crude drawing for illustration. Several times Costello uses the Church as a scapegoat for the what's wrong with the world, insisting that if people surrender to its teachings they will become little more than mindless, spineless servants.
Incessant tough-guy talk from both cops and criminals involves graphic descriptions of sexual activity for insult and shock value. This includes oft-repeated—obscene—sexual slang for both sexual acts and anatomy. Explicit banter revolves around oral and anal sex, incest, pedophilia, homosexuality, masturbation, and preteen menstruation and arousal. Costello and his girlfriend discuss and engage in (offscreen) sexual activity. Costello also solicits the services of a prostitute.
During a clandestine meeting at a porn theater (we see quick flashes of what's going on onscreen), Costello pulls a dildo out of his pants as a joke. Both Sullivan and Costigan have a sexual relationship with Madolyn. Much of their goings on are either implied or talked about later. But in one extended scene, Costigan and Madolyn are seen stripping down to their underwear and beginning an encounter.
Scorsese plus gangsters equals frequent, brutal violence often presented casually to emphasize the moral emptiness of the characters. Early in the film, a police instructor describes to a roomful of cadets the effects of a hollow-point bullet on the human body. As the story progresses, we witness said bloody "splatter" and "blowback" as a dozen or so characters take bullets to the head from close range. (One man shoots himself.) Others get shot in the chest, legs, stomach, etc. with bloody results. Brutal beatings are administered with fists, feet and blunt instruments, resulting in lost teeth, gashes and more blood. A lingerie-clad woman is briefly seen being choked to death with a wire by her husband. A man is stabbed. Punches are exchanged almost as a manner of greeting.
Multiple mangled and gore-covered corpses get screen time. Costello is at various times seen covered in blood and waving a severed human hand around. He severely beats Costigan's already broken wrist with a boot. Another police officer falls to his death from atop a building. (He's seen falling and then lying in an expanding pool of blood.)
Crude or Profane Language
I've never been to Boston, so I can't personally verify whether fiction follows fact, but guys in movies from South Boston probably say the f-word more than those from any other region. Here, their shared total of f-related obscenities climbs well into the 200s. It almost seems silly to add that the s-word gets worked out about 25 times. Jesus' and God's names are abused about 15 times (Jesus' is combined with the f-word; God's with "d--n"). As for the sexual slang already alluded to, extreme terms "c--k" and c--t" are both carelessly tossed around, for even more color, as it were.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Smoking and drinking are basically background noise, here. It's the hard stuff that gets all the attention. Costigan develops an addiction to prescription painkillers (OxyContin, among them). Costello is seen high on cocaine, throwing the stuff around like baby powder, about to engage in sexual activity with a prostitute. (He tells her to stick her face in the powder until she's "numb.") He also participates in buying and selling drugs as part of his mob operations.
Other Negative Elements
Costello and others use racial epithets freely and hurtfully. Italian, Irish, African-American, Puerto Rican and Chinese ethnicities are particularly called out.
In some ways, The Departed delivers exactly what you would expect from a Scorsese crime movie. Well-crafted storytelling. Impressive tough-guy performances from a crackerjack cast. And several truckloads of brutal, graphic violence and harshly obscene language (especially and endlessly the f-word).
What might be unexpected is that even at nearly 70, Jack Nicholson is both the most profane and the most riveting thing onscreen. He’s like the Joker gone bad. A deviant, conscience-free mob boss completely convincing as a magnet for these two young cops who love and despise him. And utterly overwhelming the earnest performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon.
Largely because of him, fans of the genre will likely add this to the list of iconic gangster films, a list which already includes Scorsese’s own Goodfellas and Mean Streets. Some of those hard-core fans may actually complain The Departed isn’t quite tough enough. And that's because Scorsese has taken a little of the edge off the violent tone (but certainly not the violent content) to service the clever Shakespearean plot. He even throws in several moments of outright humor.
For those looking for meaning in between the spatter shots, there's a singular and blaring dark-and-darker message: It’s hard out there for a rat. Though DiCaprio’s Costigan remains true to his mission, the evil he performs in the name of good leaves an indelible stain he can’t rub out. Whether you’re a rat for the good guys or the bad guys, duplicity and betrayal always costs you your soul, Scorsese says. Even if you scheme your way to some version of success, you can never really win. Liars die inside. And then they just plain die.
For those looking to eat popcorn along with their movie, or those possessing even a small amount of moral discernment and decorum, or even fans of the much tamer Hong Kong original, most will feel they’ve stumbled into a drug dealer’s locker room. In South Boston. With the stench of blood and gun powder. And brain matter splattered on the wall.