“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” — Martin Scorsese’s legendary filmography as a director is second to none, but which of his films is the best? Opinions on the topic vary, but the current consensus seems to be that the 1990 film “Goodfellas” is his masterpiece, as the film tops the list of most Scorsese rankings on websites such as GQ, Slashfilm and Esquire. Likewise, “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are usually not far behind in these lists. However, as a dedicated fan of Scorsese who has seen these films multiple times, there is one that stands out above the rest that I keep coming back to: “The Departed.”
“The Departed” was released in 2006 and is based on the Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs,” which was released in 2002. The film follows two Boston police officers, one of whom is a rat working for the Irish mob inside the police system while the other is a rat inside the Irish mob working for the police. This leads to a game of cat and mouse as the two rats try to find each other while trying not to get caught. “The Departed” would go on to win four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. This is actually Scorsese’s first and only Academy Award win as of right now.
One of the reasons “The Departed” is Scorsese’s best film is the cast he was able to assemble and the performances he was able to draw out. The film features an incredible ensemble cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen, just to name a few. DiCaprio and Damon star as the two main police officers, and both give convincing performances that convey their anxiety and trepidation about being caught. The supporting cast is given a little more freedom to let loose and be chaotic, which leads to great performances from Nicholson and Wahlberg, who both have a lot of fun with their respective characters.
The cast and performances set “The Departed” ahead of one of Scorsese’s other top films: “Taxi Driver” (1976). While “Taxi Driver” is a great film with equally superb performances, the film falls short to “The Departed” in its lack of a true ensemble cast. While “The Departed” is able to juggle a large supporting cast of characters and fully flesh them all out, “Taxi Driver” opts to dive deep into the mind of Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran who works as taxi driver in New York City. Both of these strategies can be effective in making great films, but “The Departed” shows off Scorsese’s skills better as a director in bringing out great performances and balancing a multitude of characters.
The plot of “The Departed” also makes it a better film than “Raging Bull,” another of Scorsese’s great films. “Raging Bull” (1980) follows the life of boxer Jake LaMotta and how his rage destroys his career and family. While the film is an undeniable classic that has managed to stay in American popular culture since its release, the storyline of the film is its weakness due to its predictability and simplicity. The story of “The Departed” stays with you after watching the film because of its richness, while “Raging Bull” quickly fades away.
“The Departed” delivers upon its intriguing premise with a fast-paced and action-packed plot that always keeps you guessing. The basis of the plot is deceptively simple, yet leads to great character development and interactions that keep the film from getting stale, despite its runtime of over two and a half hours. Furthermore, the film is rich with visual symbolism, such as the appearance of an “x” around characters who are going to die. The film also ends strongly, with a surprise twist that pays off all the loose ends of the film.
“The Departed” also succeeds in exploring deep thematic content that makes you think about the film and the world in general. One of the ways that the film does this is by blurring the lines between hero and villain. While DiCaprio is technically the protagonist and Damon the antagonist, both characters have positive and negative qualities, which makes you question who is actually in the right. The most iconic quote from the film is when Nicholson’s character says, “When I was your age, they would say you could become cops or criminals. Today what I’m saying to you is this: When facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” This line perfectly sums up the film’s commentary on how the distinction between police and mob members can easily be disturbed.
The deep themes of “The Departed” also put it ahead of the 2013 film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which follows the rise and eventual fall of Jordan Belfort, a corrupt stockbroker. The film tries to condemn the actions of Belfort by depicting his fall from grace, but it falls short in this area by portraying Belfort as a charismatic and likable individual, which makes the audience feel sympathy for him, rather than understand he was a terrible person. On the other hand, “The Departed” does a much better job of portraying life in the Irish mob as brutal, and it does not glorify a life of crime like “The Wolf of Wall Street” does.
The musical score of “The Departed” also elevates the film. The song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” is effectively used during a montage early in the film in order to establish the Irish roots and criminal undertones of the film. The film also features original music, such as “The Departed Tango,” which builds tension during important scenes. The film masterfully combines all of this music to create a tonally consistent film about the mob in Boston. Unlike “The Departed,” the score of “Goodfellas” makes the film feel rushed at points, and the lack of tonal consistency with the song choices contributes to the disjointedness between many of the scenes. While “Goodfellas” is no doubt one of Scorsese’s best, its score holds it back.
All in all, “The Departed” stands out for its complex characters, engaging storyline, exploration of deep themes and beautiful score. These are the reasons why I keep coming back to this film and why I believe it to be Scorsese’s best work. However, no matter which film you think is his best, we can all celebrate Scorsese’s illustrious career as a filmmaker and look forward to his next masterpiece.
Elijah Engler is a freshman majoring in chemistry.