MOTW: Why "The Departed" Is One of the Best Gangster Films of All Time

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
April 15th, 2013

MOTW: Why "The Departed" Is One of the Best Gangster Films of All Time

-- "The Departed" is a 2006 film about the Irish mafia in Boston. With an all-star cast directed by film legend Martin Scorsese and written by William Monahan, "The Departed" is a modern movie that has earned its place as a classic gangster film on par with "The Godfather."

Stellar acting by a standout cast of performers, each of whom can and does stand alone as a leading actor, is what really earns "The Departed" its place in the gangster film hall of fame. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers one of the signature roles of his career as Billy Costigan, a young police academy reject turned mafia mole. Costigan's relationship with Jack Nicholson's character, mob boss Frank Costello, provides the riveting central conflict of the film. While Nicholson and DiCaprio are the film's main characters, the supporting roles are equally responsible for the film's gritty atmosphere and moving storyline. Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, and Martin Sheen all deliver memorable performances as the film's supporting cast.

Matt Damon plays Staff Sergeant Colin Sullivan of the Boston Police Department. Nicholson's and Damon's characters were generally based off Whitey Bulger, an ingenious mafia leader who infiltrated high levels of the FBI, and his corrupt protégé, John Connolly. The interaction between these Sullivan, Costigan, and Costello creates a game of cat and mouse that is emotionally gripping and deeply disturbing at the same time.

While "The Departed" is famous for its intensely graphic and accurate portrayal of the Irish mafia in Boston, the film also boasts plenty of perfectly timed dark humor to balance things out. The fast-paced exchanges between Baldwin's and Sheen's characters, complete with thick Bostonian accents, save the audience when the film descends just a bit too far into the dark world it portrays.

"The Departed" is the first gangster film since "The Godfather" to develop its characters so deeply yet dispatch them so savagely. Scorsese makes sure that you fall in love with the characters and understand the complexity of the reasons behind why they do the things they do, and then he makes sure they get shot down in true gangster movie fashion. The fact that there are no real villains makes the violence seem even more brutal. Even Nicholson's devilish portrayal of Frank Costello is so relatable and nuanced that the audience can't help but to love him as much as they hate him.

Another reason "The Departed" deserves a star on the gangster film walk of fame is the cinematography. The Boston streets come alive with Scorsese's camera work. Innovative angles and shots make each scene as engaging, and often as disturbing, as possible. It's impossible not to get sucked into the world of this gritty film, and in spite of its length, the movie is over before you know it. Fans of the film are still talking about "the elevator scene" even seven years later. Special effects are kept to a minimum in "The Departed," even during prolonged gunfights, which is part of what makes this movie so believable.

"The Departed" is an instant gangster film success on grounds of character development and cinematography alone, but no truly classic gangster film would be complete without a heavy atmosphere and great fight scenes. "The Departed" delivers generously on both counts. The life of an Irish Mafioso is a violent one, and Scorsese portrays this accurately in the constant fist fights and shootouts throughout the film. These scenes are even more intense because the characters on both sides of the law are so fully developed. When you add in double agents and even more double-crossing, "The Departed" qualifies as one of the most suspenseful gangster films of all time.

"The Departed" doesn't lack romance either. Like any great gangster film, "The Departed" has its own tense love triangle between Costigan, the green and temperamental FBI informant; Dr. Madolyn Madden, his understanding court-appointed therapist; and Staff Sergeant Colin Sullivan, Costello's right-hand man. The love story between Costigan and Dr. Madden is tender but is not without its rough patches. Fortunately, their love interest adds to the tension of the film and doesn't detract from the story, as is the case in so many modern films.

"The Departed" has all the basic elements of a classic gangster film and then some. Suspense, drama, violence, great camera work, and a bit of romance all converge to create one of the most gripping and intense gangster films of all time. "The Departed" is truly a must-see for any hardcore film fan, especially those who love the gangster movie genre.