The Departed is one of the most notable movies from Martin Scorsese’s filmography. It features some of the most prolific names in cinema, like Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson, in addition to being a fresh take on the crime/gangster genre. Martin Scorsese had operated within the realm before with films like Mean Streets and Goodfellas, but The Departed also took a look at the police system within Boston and the parallels between law enforcement and organized crime.
The ending of the film is incredibly memorable, as it is the accumulation of many moving parts and communicates the true message of the film. However, there was almost a different ending to the film, which would’ve completely changed The Departed thematically.
What Happens At The End Of The Departed?
The entire plot of The Departed hinges on a game of cat and mouse between the Boston Police Department and the Irish mob. Both organizations have a rat placed within their ranks, and they're trying to find out how their intel is being leaked. DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, who is a rat for the police department tasked with infiltrating the mob. This job ends up being impossible when we find out that mob boss, Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson, is an informant for the FBI.
Damon plays Colin Sullivan, who is truly a member of the Irish mob and infiltrates the police department. Sullivan and Costigan learn about each other’s statuses, resulting in a standoff where Costigan ends up dead. Frank Costello also dies, and Sullivan is the only one left alive.
Later, Sullivan is in his apartment with his girlfriend, and believes himself to be the last one standing despite being a rat. When he comes home after buying groceries, his home is infiltrated by Staff Sergeant Sean Dignam, played by Mark Wahlberg, who has seemingly discovered that Sullivan was the rat. He shoots him in the head. The movie concludes with a final shot of an actual rat scurrying off the screen. The deaths of the characters are foreshadowed, with "Xs" hidden within the visuals to indicate those who meet their demise.
What The Ending Means In The Martin Scorsese Film
By the end of the film, every character who commits an act of betrayal ends up dead, a clear indignation of the practice by the filmmaker. The ending shot shows a rat scurrying off, almost as if it’s getting away. Many have read this shot final shot to mean that even if corrupt individuals are caught and taken out, there will always be infiltrators or “rats” within our systems, and no law enforcement organization is truly “clean.”
One of The Departed's frequent critiques from some is the last shot of the film being too “on the nose,” especially coming from Scorsese, whose films always have deep allegorical meanings and clever metaphors. There was even a campaign years back to change the The Departed's ending to remove the final shot of the rodent. However, other audiences see the silliness of the shot and overt symbolism as purposeful, pointing a finger at how ridiculous the climb for power is because all those who chase it end up dead.
Even though the wise-cracking, tough as nails Sergeant Dignam ends up the “victor” for finding the mole within the department, his own approach to law enforcement is just as detrimental as the Irish Mob, and he commits the same violent act in the end.
How The Ending Of The Departed Was Almost Different
According to an interview from Martin Scorsese, The Departed's ending was originally quite different because there was an intended sequel for the Boston crime movie. Warner Brothers. was keen on a film franchise, with Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio to carry on their roles in a follow-up film. The studio wanted the characters to live at the end so both megastars could be in the movie. The filmmaker explained to GQ:
What they wanted was a franchise. It wasn’t about a moral issue of a person living or dying.
Scorsese felt that this “studio-approved” ending would undermine many of the themes of the movie and the statements about institutions the director wanted to communicate with the 2006 flick. The filmmaker went ahead and made the movie he wanted, which led to much disappointment from Warner Bros. executives when The Departed was screened. He said:
And then the studio guys walked out and they were very sad, because they just didn’t want that movie. They wanted the franchise. Which means: I can’t work here any more.
This clearly was a turning point for Scorsese, who saw that studio desires and wants were changing. Seemingly from his perspective, his own artistic integrity spoiled his relationship with a major Hollywood studio. However, The Departed was well received by audiences and critics, and it went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture and net Scorsese his first Academy Award for Best Director.
How The Alternate Ending Would’ve Changed The Meaning Of The Film
While it may have been fun to watch DiCaprio and Damon duke it out on screen for The Departed 2, the ending that the studio wanted would’ve completely changed the movie. Everyone in the film dying in their quest for power through violence makes a massive statement about our institutions. The complete lack of a moral compass, no matter who the characters worked for, was the reason they met a grim fate. If Damon and DiCaprio both survived, the ultimate message at the core of the movie would be null and void, and The Departed would likely be just another run-of-the-mill 2000s crime drama.
In the end, Scorsese thankfully stuck by his principles and we got the intended allegorical ending artfully done with intention. It's is one of the best Boston movies ever made, boasting great performances from the all-star Departed cast. Ever since, Scorsese has defended his approach to cinema and continued to make films with meaning, as opposed to caving to studio pressure, and cinema is better for it.
You can eatch The Departed now with a Netflix subscription. Fans of the movie should also read about the behind-the-scenes facts from the 2006 Oscar winner, and learn what else went into the making of the film.