The podcast I host together, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at The aviator. This week we’re looking at each other The departed. It’s a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it has fueled some of my own thoughts on Martin Scorsese’s gangster film, which was named Best Picture.
The departed it’s about a lot of different things.
As one might expect from a Martin Scorsese film, it is largely an exploration of a certain type of masculinity. It’s a story about fathers and sons, but also about how a man’s worth is measured. Indeed, The departed arguably takes Scorsese’s fascination with a certain type of exaggerated American masculinity to the logical endpoint, since Frank Costello serves as the nexus that links sex and violence together without producing an heir, and Colin Sullivan is forced to argue about his impotence during his Girlfriend eats banana.
However, The departed ties in with some of Scorsese’s other core themes – especially the director’s recurring fascination with identity. Naturally, The departed is an adaptation of the Hong Kong thriller Hell mattersHence, it makes sense that identity is a core issue. The film is the parallel story of two undercover films; Colin Sullivan and Billy Costigan. Colin is a criminal masquerading as a cop while Billy is a cop masquerading as a criminal. Of course, the issue of identity and self-image is inevitably linked to all of this.
That said The departed is perhaps most interesting for how it ties in with Scorsese’s larger filmography. So many of Scorsese’s films are tied to the idea of human connection and belonging, even as extreme counterexamples in films like “God’s lonely man” Travis Bickle in taxi driver. Especially in Scorsese’s crime films like Goodfellas and casinothere is a clear emphasis on the idea of “Affiliation” and “Compliant”His films are often about outsiders (like the Irish Henry Hill or the Jew Sam Rothstein) who try to fit into the largely Italian-American mob.
The departed is largely built around the Irish mob in Boston and therefore exists a long way from Scorsese’s typical interest in the Italian mob in New York. (Notably, despite its Boston location, large swaths of The departed were actually filmed in New York City.) Scorsese’s portrayal of the criminal life in The departed marks a clear contrast point of Goodfellas and casino. While the characters are in Goodfellas and casino They inevitably betray the family ties and loyalty to bind them together. You still acknowledge its importance. This is not the case The departed.
in the The departedAll of the characters end up confronting the reality that they exist in border areas that are gravity more gravity than are held in place by blood bonds. The departed marks a departure from Scorsese’s earlier crime films – probably too Medium streets and even Age of innocence – because it completely ignores any sense of common community or common identity. As Frank Costello says in the opening scene, “When you stand in front of a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”
Of course, it’s important not to overly romanticize the criminals Goodfellas and casinowho inevitably betray each other as soon as it becomes easily convenient to do so. These characters often rationalize their behavior and present themselves as honorable thieves, but their actions ultimately give them away. Even so, Scorsese seems to believe, inspired by his own childhood in an Italian-American community, that these criminals can impose something similar to order.
After all, the mob is portrayed as a fact of life in Wild bulland as the kind of order that Jake LaMotta has to grapple with if he’s ever going to move forward. In Scorsese’s films, even when membership in such a group is inconsistent, it is often better to be inside than outside. in the casinoAndy Stone ends up being dropped off by the bosses at the first touch of anger for not being an Italian-American. As Nicky explains “As much as they liked him, I mean he wasn’t one of us. He wasn’t Italian.”
As, The departed is interesting because its characters operate in a world with no loyalty or family ties. The departed is notable as Scorsese’s second major film, which focuses primarily on the Irish-American community rather than its own Italian-American community New York Criminal Organizations. It’s interesting that in Scorsese’s filmography, the films arrive (relatively) in quick succession.
While Scorsese’s accounts of the Italian-American community were largely based on his own experience, his interest in Irish-Americans was more academic. In his short documentation The neighborhoodScorsese talks about his own fascination with discovering that the neighborhood he grew up in wasn’t always Italian. It had been Irish before. When he revisited this neighborhood with his daughter after September 11, he found that the demographics had changed again as the neighborhood had become Sino-American.
New York Criminal Organizations is largely a story of how the Irish became Americans, how the ethnic group integrated into American society. There is a lot of tension New York Criminal Organizations on the concept of Irish identity; Priest Vallon’s attempt to build an expansive Irish coalition with real political power is ultimately realized by his son Amsterdam, but he is faced with the realization that so many Irish characters in the film like Mulraney and McGloin had fully assimilated by the time they tried ( and not) to erase their Irish identity.
Naturally, New York Criminal Organizations ends quite brutally and cynically, with the great conflict between William Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon, which was interrupted by the Draft Riots. History catches up with them and washes everything away. New York Criminal Organizations concludes with the grim remark that ultimately nothing in the film matters, that everything in it is forgotten, and that American history may be caught in the same recurring cycles of violence and destruction.
This reflects the typical mythology of the Irish-American experience. When the Irish first arrived in North America, they were victims of discrimination and prejudice. However, the Irish managed to integrate themselves into existing social structures and often to promote their own privilege at the expense of other minority groups. While Irish identity remains immensely intriguing – check out the coverage of Barack Obama’s or Joe Biden’s Irish roots – for the most part, it is “Mainstream.” St. Patrick’s Day is a mainstream American holiday in a way that Chinese New Year or even Columbus Day is not.
The departed instantly establishes Irish as an ethnic identity. Costello spends a lot of time defining the boundaries of his domain in terms of other ethnic gangs. Costigan imagines Costello correctly beating up two Italian-American gangsters who are trying to extort protection money from a local shopkeeper. “They know something, they just don’t stop having the Providence mafia.” Costello sighs in conversation with Costigan.
The film even opens up the race riot juxtaposition in Boston, with Frank Costello meditating on the Irish-American experience. He designed his lecture as a counterpoint to violence on the streets; implicitly contrast the Irish-American experience with that of the African-Americans. This feels like a natural extension of New York Criminal Organizationswhere anti-Irish prejudice played out against the backdrop of the slavery debate and where arguments within the Irish-American community were broken down by the draft riots.
Even outside of New York Criminal OrganizationsScorsese has long been fascinated by the elasticity of Irish-American identity, the way the Irish seem able (and perhaps even eager) to give up their identity in order to integrate more efficiently into existing power structures. It may be present in Henry Hill, who willingly hides and obscures his Catholic background to better integrate into Karen’s family Goodfellas. It is also present with Frank Sheehan in The Irishmanwho seems to have no identity or agency other than what others want him to be.
Of course, the Irish have benefited from the privilege of being able (and willing) to assimilate so completely. After all, there is still no Italian-American or Sino-American president of the United States. There were even some traces of the old anti-Irish sentiment when John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic nomination. However, it is remarkable how quickly and how efficiently the Kennedy family was able to transform their roots in the liquor business into a legitimate political dynasty.
The Kennedy family is persecuted The departed. Frank Costello’s opening monologue appears to be taking the Kennedy family as a model for his plan to infiltrate the local police department with loyal soldiers. “I don’t want to be a product of my surroundings – I want my surroundings to be a product of myself.” he explains. “Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a job as king, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace.” In a very real sense, John F. Kennedy is the first to be established “departed” referenced in The departed.
Kennedy follows so much of Scorsese’s twenty-first century filmography. Joseph Kennedy appears as a character on the final season of Boardwalk Empirewhile Jimmy Hoffa’s feud with the Kennedys is a lot going on The Irishman. Both the last season of Boardwalk Empire and The Irishman Call Francis Ford Coppolas directly The Godfather, Part IIwho kept his Kennedy-related subjects below the surface. Indeed in The Irishman, Scorsese Casts Boardwalk Empire Star Jack Huston as Bobby Kennedy, who casts one member of a mythical Irish dynasty to play another.
Colin Sullivan’s characterization is very much shaped by this arc. He spends long periods of time on the move and looks longingly at the Massachusetts State House. He even buys a property with a clear view to further improve his social status. “You’re moving in, you’re in the upper class until about Thursday.” the real estate agent promises. When Barrigan finds Sullivan pondering the building, he rebukes: “Look, forget it. Your old man was a janitor and his son is just a cop. “ Still, his girlfriend Madolyn jokingly answers the phone. “Mayor Sullivan’s office.”
Virtually everything Sullivan does is designed to help him meet others’ expectations of him, including seducing Madolyn so he can play the role of a good family man. “Marriage is an important part of progress” Ellerby assures him. “Lets people know you’re not homo. Married man seems more stable; people see the ring, they think at least someone can endure a B! Tch’s son; ladies see the ring, they know right away you have some money have to or your tail has to work. “
Indeed, one of the most interesting and complicated readings of The departed suggests that Sullivan is actually a withdrawn gay man. After all, sex and sexuality are a big part of the film – reportedly because Jack Nicholson pushed the film in that direction. Damon apparently followed Nicholson’s lead and suggested that Sullivan be confronted with Nicholson’s hypersexual Costello. Indeed, The departed indicates that Sullivan is powerless. He suffers from erectile dysfunction with Madolyn and it is believed that their baby was created through sex with Billy Costigan.
The departed is intentionally ambiguous on this point, but his recurring fascination with sexual imagery and identity lends itself to this reading; the encounter with Costello in the porn cinema with the huge black dildo, the repeated graphic sexual references to Madolyn that seem to make Sullivan uncomfortable, his fixation on the sexual orientation of the firefighters who play football. It is entirely possible that Sullivan’s impotence merely indicates he is under great pressure, but Costigan is under just as much pressure and has no such problems.
Regardless of the exact type of identity under his guise The departed repeatedly stresses that Sullivan is “Pass.” He pretends to be something he is not in order to improve his social status. The departed It depends on Sullivan and Costigan being able to break down and relinquish important parts of their identities in order to get the job they’ve done. This work seems inherently linked to Scorsese’s concept of Irish as an identity, which is contrasted with his typical representations of the Italian-American community.
To give an obvious example, Costello’s primary henchman is named “Mr. French” and played by British actor Ray Winstone, although he is apparently an Irish gangster. (The film points to this absurdity when Costigan asks Costello: “His real name, Mister French?” Costello simply replies, “No.”) This is neatly contrasted with Scorsese’s emphasis on repetition of very specific names in the Italian-American community in Goodfellas.
Karen remembers their wedding and remembers that mob boss Paulie’s extended family attended the celebration. “Paulie and his brothers had many sons and nephews” Karen tells the audience. “And almost all of them were called Peter or Paul. It was amazing. There must have been two dozen Peters and Pauls at the wedding. Also, they were all married to girls named Marie. And they all named their daughters Marie. “ Many of these characters were played by Italian-American actors. It’s interesting to compare this to the fungibility of the Irish-American characters in The departed.
The departed is fascinated by it. It seems to suggest that this lack of strong group identity comes close to psychosis. At dinner, Sullivan reminds Madolyn, “What Freud said about the Irish is: we are the only people who are impervious to psychoanalysis.” Sullivan jokes about how difficult it must be for Madolyn to work as a police psychologist in a crowded department “Mick Cops”, but the film reinforces that point by placing Madolyn between Sullivan and Costigan.
Scorsese is incredibly wary of this lack of identity. The same lack of a strong group identity that allows Sullivan and Costigan to effortlessly switch between the seemingly binary roles of “Police officer” and “Criminal” also separates them from any tangible identity. You are essentially drifting and you cannot rely on anyone. The only thing that proves Costigan is actually a cop is a file on a computer, as Dignam points out: “You’re nobody. You signed the paper. We’re the only people in the world who know you’re a cop. Maybe we’ll just delete your file.”
The climax of the film hangs on that line, on the idea that Costigan’s identity is so fragile and delicate that it can be wiped off with a few keystrokes. When Sullivan discovers that Costigan has identified him as Costello’s rat within the police department, Sullivan deletes Costigan’s file in retaliation. As a result, Costigan is forced to rely on his old friend Brown’s trust and the faith of Madolyn. Ultimately, this is not enough to save Costigan.
It’s a terrible way of life. Practically everyone in the film betrays everyone else. While the police are fighting to arrest Frank Costello, Costello himself works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (Costello was modeled after Whitey Bulger, although he shared the name of a gangster with alleged connections to Joseph Kennedy.) Costello dismisses postmortem reports that Timothy Delahunt informed the police about the mob, arguing that it was just a distraction from the real Mole, but it is certainly not impossible that there were two Undercover cops.
Similarly, towards the end of the film, Sullivan discovers that Barrigan also works for Costello in the police department. “Did you think you were the only one he had inside?” Barrigan asks Sullivan. The truth is that there is just no way you can know. Anything could be a lie. Everyone could be the exact opposite of what they are presenting to themselves. It’s a nightmare, even beyond the heightened and stylized thriller that Sullivan and Costigan find themselves in.
Of course, such an environment does not create loyalty. Characters that are nominally aligned with each other inevitably betray each other as the climax increases. After Sullivan contacts Costigan, he decides to kill Costello to protect himself. Later, after Barrigan kills both Costigan and Brown to protect Sullivan, Sullivan kills Barrigan in turn. In the film’s final scene, when Sullivan comes home and Dignam is waiting to ambush him, he seems more resigned than appalled. “Okay,” he just says as if he accepts his fate.
Scorsese has described The departed in response to the war on terror that emerged from September 11th and described it as “Morale Ground Zero”and this is most evident in the very strange (and completely unsolved) film. “Microprocessors” Subplot in which Costello sells some counterfeit microprocessors to the Chinese while apparently holding onto the originals. At some point Ellerby even sings enthusiastically “Patriot Act!” as he celebrates the wonderful funding and technology (and powers) that are not available to him in trying to defeat a local gangster.
This war on terrorism metaphor, however, may play by emphasizing the film’s identity. After all, the war on terror was largely an incredibly nebulous one “us against them” Logic where “You” was left very vague. In the war on terror, hate crimes against Muslim-American communities increased, but there were also more bizarre xenophobic acts like branding “French fries” as “Freedom fries.” The march towards the Afghanistan and Iraq wars was as a battle between “Patriots” and the opponents; Everyone on the other side could be one “Traitor.”
This decomposition of group identity into a slightly fungible binary file is reflected in the central identity crisis at the heart of The departed. If only there is “us” and “You”, and if “You” is constantly being redefined to include a person in opposition then it can be very difficult to hold onto a tangible sense of self. This is a concept of self-esteem, and its importance in determining identity (and maintaining morality) is of great recurring interest to Scorsese.
Movies like taxi driver and Wild bull are fascinated by the extent to which characters like Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta are products of their environment. The last temptation of Christ and Kundun asked how it must feel for a person who lives as a divine representative on earth. shutter Island concludes by asking if it was worse “To live as a monster or to die as a good man.” At the core, The Irishman condemns Frank Sheehan for his passivity and his refusal to accept moral responsibility for his own part in acts of violence.
The departed just takes these ideas to extremes and envisions a world where these characters lack strong tangible identities and – as a result – lack strong loyalties, bonds, or trusts. It’s a bleak and brutal universe, arguably as cold as any Scorsese ever imagined.