The Departed has to be the most frustrating movie I’ve ever seen. Very rarely does a movie come this close to perfection, only to screw things up at the last minute with unneeded plot-twists that don’t make a lick of sense. The Departed can’t be called bad, by any stretch of the imagination, bolstered as it is by strong performances across the board and a captivating story. But it doesn’t achieve the level of greatness it might have, since it’s got about as many plot holes as there are bullet holes in its character’s heads, which is a lot.
And I wouldn’t pick on it so much, except the Departed is the sort of movie where the plot is pretty darn important. It’s a movie about intrigue and espionage, and though the characters are certainly not bland or boring, the Departed is definitely plot-driven, rather than character-driven.
The Departed is a story about two moles, played to perfection by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio. As Lenonardo diCaprio attempts to infiltrate the Irish mafia, led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), Matt Damon attempts to discover which one of Costello’s men is a traitor and save Costello from getting arrested. Damon is slick, amiable, and charming, while diCaprio is edgy, angry, and liable to snap at any moment. Both are enormous fun to watch, as is Nicholson, who pulls out all the stops as he plays the role he was born to play–a smug, womanizing gangster. The game of cat-and-mouse than ensues between them is clever and thrilling. Unlike many espionage thrillers (like the Bourne and Bond franchises, for example) in which it is pretty obvious who’s going to win in the end, in the Departed it’s unclear whether Damon or diCaprio is going to come out on top, making each already suspenseful scene that much more suspenseful.
The first two hours of the Departed are among the best two hours of filmmaking I have ever seen. The dialogue is sharp, lively, and often humorous; the characters are believable and interesting enough that you care about what happens to them; the scenes are well-staged and well-thought out. It is only towards the end that the movie begins to flag. It seems the filmmakers cared more about surprising the audience with a series of ever-more shocking plot twists than thinking up a coherent and satisfying conclusion to their story.
What happens is this. Jack Nicholson turns out to be an FBI informant. Matt Damon learns of this and decides to turn on his former boss/surrogate father, resulting in a shootout in which Nicholson is killed. It’s unclear to me exactly what Damon was afraid of. That the FBI would find out he was a double-agent? If they’re willing to look the other way while Nicholson and his thugs chop people up and dumped hem in the swamp and throw police-chiefs out of apartment buildings, I doubt they’re going to get riled up about Damon passing him a few tips. Are we supposed to believe they’re willing to let Nicholson and his mobsters off the hook, but would lock up Damon if they found out he was a mole?
It’s all a bit fuzzy, but I’m willing to let it slide, because it’s so satisfying watching Damon confront Nicholson, and the carnage that ensues. What I’m not willing to let slide is what happens next.
Through a process too complicated to explain here, diCaprio figures out that Damon is the mole. He decides to play it cool for the moment, waiting until he has proper evidence to prove Damon’s guilt–oh, no, wait. That’s what a reasonable human being would have done. Instead, upon learning Damon’s true identity, diCaprio just…leaves. That’s right. He just walks right out of the police department, giving Damon the chance to erase his file from the police computer. Since diCaprio was under cover and his boss is dead (he was the guy they through out of the apartment building earlier), now no one can prove that he was a cop. Worse, he is wanted for a string of crimes committed while working for Costello. Way to go, Leonardo.
God decides to give Leonardo a second chance to beat Matt Damon. It turns out Nicholson left him a bunch of tape recordings in his will, tape recordings that prove beyond a doubt that Matt Damon is a sleazy, two-faced traitor. DiCaprio immediately sends this damning evidence to the police–no, wrong again. He gives it to Matt Damon’s girlfriend and then calls Damon on the phone and demands that Damon meet him on top of an abandoned building, with two other cops (Mark Wahlberg and some fat guy). I guess the reason for this was that he wanted Damon to restore his police identity, and that’s why he didn’t just turn him in. He needed Damon to tell everyone who he was, and that couldn’t happen if Damon was simply arrested, so–oh, no. It turns out Leonardo had no intention of blackmailing Damon, because upon meeting him he immediately smacks him in the face and announces he’s going to arrest him. If you just wanted to have him arrested, why not send in the tapes?
Somehow, despite all odds, it seems as though Leonardo is actually about to win. He manages to convince the fat cop accompanying Damon not to shoot him in the face, and has Damon handcuffed and at gunpoint. Victory for Leo! And then–
Bang! Some random dude who had about five lines in the entire movie pops out of nowhere and shoots poor Leonardo in the face.
It turns out that Jack Nicholson had a SECOND mole in the police department. OK, I guess that makes sense, even though ALL the inside tips we’ve seen Costello receive in the entire rest of the movie came only from Damon. I guess the other guy just didn’t have anything useful to tell him? And it turns out that this new mole, despite being a lower rank than Damon in the police force, somehow knows Damon’s secret. AND he apparently knows Nicholson was an FBI informant, even though it took Matt Damon the whole movie to figure it out. Wait, what? Slow down, movie. Who is this guy? How does he know all this stuff? Oh, and he also knew about the secret rooftop meeting, even though the only people DiCaprio told were Wahlberg, Damon, and the fat guy, and it’s clear from the stupefied look on his face that Damon didn’t invite this guy. I guess the real plot twist is not that Costello had a second mole in the police, but that that mole was secretly a mutant with psychic powers. Too bad he didn’t manage to foresee getting shot in the head a few seconds later, bringing the number of head-shots in this movie up to approximately 500.
At this point, the Departed has decided to forego logic and reason for the sake of out-of-nowhere surprises and an ending that’s like an M. Night Shalamayan wet dream. I’m honestly surprised they didn’t just go with this ending.
And it’s really a shame, considering that if this movie had just held through for the last twenty minutes, it could have ben one of the best crime thrillers ever made. It’s still good, if you ignore the fact that it treats plausibility like one of those stretchy toys they give you at the dentist. I guess it COULD all make sense. Maybe if I think about it for long enough, I’ll figure out some explanation that makes it all make sense. But I’m not going to, because it’s not my job to make the movie make sense. It’s the screenwriters’.