Sunday, March 6, 2016
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
As one can see by reading some of the posts on this blog, I am partial to movies that contain irony. I suppose I am drawn to these types of motion pictures because irony explores the rich contrasts and contradictions in human behavior. There certainly is a great deal of those complexities in this Martin Scorsese directed Oscar-winning film.
There are two main characters here. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a cadet at the Massachusetts’ State Police Academy who has family on his father’s side with connections to crime. His uncle was killed because of his criminal associations. However, his father remained inside the law, working as a bag handler. His mother’s side of the family was more upscale. Costigan is a smart fellow, receiving high scores on his SAT tests, and later we hear him quote Nathaniel Hawthorne. He wants to escape the dark shadow cast by his family by becoming a state trooper. He has an interview with Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) of the Special Investigation Unit run by Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin). Dignam rips into Costigan, referring to his family and the fact that the young Costigan has a temper and was arrested for assault. The Staff Sergeant ridicules him for his hypocritical split life, living upper-middle class during the week and then dropping his “R’s” when he returned to the Southie projects in Boston on the weekends. The irony here is that Costigan wants to rise above criminality, leave his family legacy behind, by using his intelligence to accomplish that, and these men tell him he will never be a cop because he is too smart, and he’ll always be associated with crooks. They use him as a covert operative to infiltrate the Irish criminal gang run by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). But, in order to carry out this job, they force him into becoming the one thing he doesn’t want – a criminal. He is dismissed from the state police and it is made to look like he is convicted of assault, which is in keeping with the past he wanted to distance himself from. To keep his mission from being leaked, only Queenan and Dignam know that he is undercover. When Costigan gets out of prison, he connects with a cousin who deals drugs and eventually comes to the attention of Costello, who knew his family.
The other main character is Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). As a youth he encountered Costello, who saw how smart he was (the boy knows a quote from James Joyce, and later identifies a quote from Freud). Costello exploited the boy’s poverty (his father was a janitor) by lavishing groceries on him, promising that there was more where that came from. Sullivan’s family was poor, but law-abiding. The criminal Costello must turn a legitimate person into a mole to work for him inside the police. Because of Sullivan’s supposedly squeaky clean background, Queenan ironically tells the new detective that he will have a successful career inside the police force, which is supposed to protect the people from someone like Sullivan. There is more irony when at one point Ellerby says Sullivan has an immaculate record, like himself, which people don’t trust, probably because it is too good to be true, which in this case it is. The world has become so corrupt that a seasoned captain like Ellerby can’t even see a crooked cop right in front of him.
So, what we have here are mirror images in the characters of Costigan and Sullivan. The former has a shady family background and must pretend to be a criminal to work for law and order. The latter works for a criminal boss, but pretends to be a legitimate policeman, ironically hunting down the person he works for, Costello. To pile on the irony, because Sullivan alerts his hoodlum boss to police tails and raids, it becomes obvious to the cops that there is a mole; and who do they pick to find the traitor in their midst – Sullivan! He literally is investigating himself. In any case, each character must live a life of lies in order to “rat” on the people who supposedly employ them.
Other characters also are involved in deception. Madolyn (Vera Famiga), who is the psychiatrist Costigan must see as part of his parole, also counsels policemen. She begins to date Sullivan, moves in with him, and they become engaged. (There is a bit of contrived plotting here that the two men become involved with the same woman). In one of Costigan’s session Madolyn confronts him about not being honest, but he turns the tables on her and says he knows that all people, including her, lie. When he no longer is her patient, they see each other socially. In one meeting, she says people lie to keep things on an even keel. When he asks her if her boyfriend saw them together would she lie, and she says, yes. She says that people should decide things and stick with their decisions. But, she knows there are problems with her decision to be devoted to Sullivan. He is secretive, and is impotent with her, which is an indication that living two lives is placing a strain on him. (Costigan also feels like he is going to crack because of his split lifestyle, and can’t sleep and has panic attacks). Madolyn sleeps with Costigan, so she too, lives a double life, acting like she is committed to Sullivan, but harboring doubts about their relationship, and cheating on him. When Sullivan asks her why is she doing the work she does when with her background she could get paid much more, she says she wanted to do a public service. But, her work puts her in touch with both sides of the law, implying that her life also is torn between the legitimate and the illegitimate parts of society. Her moral vision becomes clouded by the deception around her, like Ellerby and Queenan, and she can’t see the devious nature of Sullivan, the man she supposedly loves.
Perhaps the one character who comments on the fraudulent nature of society in terms of good and bad is crime boss Frank Costello. At the beginning of the film he says that Italians used illegal brutal means to get what they wanted. The Irish had the useless Catholic Church, which he says meant that they only had each other. He tells Costigan that the church tells you what to do, and they have no right considering they are full of pederasts. But, he was a very bright student, knows literature, and tells Costigan he should wake up and pursue more education. He said to the young Sullivan that the fact that he was a criminal and an educated person meant he was a “paradox.” Thus, he has insight into the complexity of his nature, using his mind not for civilized means, but for illegal ones. For him, when there is the threat of death, it doesn’t matter which side you are on. He reflects this belief when he says that we are all on our way out, so “act accordingly.” And, he tells the youthful Sullivan that when he was a young Irish boy that he was told that you could become a criminal or a cop; but when a gun is pointed at you, “what’s the difference?” Given the immoral nature of humankind, Costello has no problem double-crossing even his own men by being an informant for the FBI, which is why the Feds never closed a case on Costello, and which implicates the Federal Government with unlawful activity. When Sullivan finds out about Costello’s treachery, he allows a police raid of one of the boss’ operations to occur. He confronts his gangster boss, a man he calls father in coded calls to him, but which also reflects, at least in Sullivan’s mind, their relationship, with Costello’s betrayal. The latter pulls a gun on Sullivan, and the “cop” kills him, ironically completing the task his phony boss, the police force, assigned to him.
Sullivan was told by Queenan to follow Costello to find the mole in the police department. He takes this police maneuver and demonically subverts it by tracking Queenan to find out who the mole is in Costello’s organization. He does not find out about Costigan at that point. After Queenan is killed by Costello’s henchmen, Sullivan takes over the investigation into the police mole. He communicates with Costigan by using Queenan’s cell phone. They meet, and Costigan says he just wants his identity back. But, what is his identity? He has acted like a criminal for so long, it is difficult to imagine what his life will be afterward, since, as Queenan said, he won’t be a policeman. Costigan finds an envelope on Sullivan’s desk with Costigan’s writing on it, and knows it came from Costello. He also receives recordings from the now deceased Costello’s lawyer which implicates Sullivan. (Why these recordings don’t surface later, along with the information Costigan gave Madolyn about Sullivan, is unclear, at least to me). Costigan’s plan to bring Sullivan to justice is thwarted when he is killed by another of Costello’s plants, Officer Barrigan (James Badge Dale – that is an ironic name), who says that Costello was going to rat him out to the FBI, too, and that the two of them have to stick together. Barrigan was a cadet with Sullivan, who had no idea about his being a Costello operative – another indication of the twisted morality in this world. We’re not done with double-crossing, because no sooner are the words out of Barrigan’s mouth, that Sullivan kills him, and says the officer was the mole (which is true, only he doesn’t say he was the only one). At least in a post-mortem sense, Costigan has his record cleared by Sullivan, saying the “departed” was on the trail of the mole and killed him. We do get justice, since the last scene has Sullivan walking into his apartment with Dignam waiting for him. He executes Sullivan, but in this environment, the sentence is carried out outside of the judicial system.
At one point, Costello’s right-hand (or should we say left-hand?) man, Mr. French (Ray Winstone) says, “It’s a nation of fuckin’ rats.” Scorsese’s last shot of the film has a rat walking along the railing of Sullivan’s apartment, the state capitol building in the background, the association tarnishing the building’s gold dome, with an indictment of society for its ethical emptiness. Why is the movie called The Departed? Well, there are many people who lose their lives in this story, and the tale is a sort of obituary for them. It could also indicate that all civilized activity has left the country. Or, maybe it means that the only escape from this corruptible world is in the grave.
The next movie is Capote.