Tools of Characterization
Characterization in The Departed
Billy Costigan is not close to his remaining his family. He grew up with divorced parents and spent his young years living with his mother and spending the weekends with his father. As he admits to Sergeant Dignam, he even had different accents he put on when living in the rough neighborhood of Southie and the rich neighborhood of the North Shore.
Meanwhile, Frank Costello is a guy who's never been able to have children himself, though he tries to become a symbolic father figure to young men like Billy and Colin. Unfortunately for him, this desire for a son is what ends up destroying him. Director Martin Scorsese once said that the thing he loved most about this movie is the way it explores issues of family, although he also admitted he didn't know what final verdict this movie gives on these issues.
Frank Costello will kill anyone who stands between him and what he wants, and that includes a police captain. Billy Costigan, on the other hand, will risk everything just to stop Frank from continuing to be the crime lord that he is. Finally, Colin Sullivan is a guy who wants to help Frank—but he also wants to make a life for himself and pursue his own ambitions. In the end, Colin decides he can't do this with Frank in his life, so he sells the guy out and totally kills him. The downside of all this is that Colin ends up getting killed, too.
Most of movie takes place in the neighborhood of Southie in Boston. This is important: the only reason Frank Costello trusts Billy Costigan enough to let him into his gang is that Billy's family goes way back in the Southie neighborhood. Frank has a deep sense of loyalty to his 'hood, but he also wants to make sure that he's the man who runs the place, which means killing anyone who tries to mess with his business. Meanwhile, half of the police force in this movie seems to come from Southie, too, and many of them are the childhood friends of the very guys they're trying to put in jail.
You can tell a lot about a person by his or her occupation, especially if that person is a murdering mob king. Yeah, Frank Costello is the kind of guy who will do anything to get power, so "mob boss" is a pretty appropriate career for him. Meanwhile, Billy Costigan is a guy who has always lived between two worlds—the rough world of Southie and the world of law and order on Boston's North Shore. And that's exactly why the job of undercover cop is a great fit for him. He has the Southie connections necessary to have street cred, and he's got a strong enough belief in he law to remember which side he's on.
Sex and Love
Despite his advanced age, Frank Costello likes to have a whole lot of sex. This might be connected to his desire for power, but it might also be connected to his frustration that after decades of having it, he's still never been able to produce a child.
Meanwhile, Colin Sullivan's fiancée Madolyn shows us some insight into her character when she cheats on Colin with Billy and then tells Billy she would lie to Colin if he ever questioned her about it.
Finally, Billy shows us that he's looking for human connection when he sleeps with his psychologist Madolyn. After months of private conversations, he feels like she's the only person he can be his true self with, and this understandably translates into a desire to be with her romantically.
I’ll admit, I have not seen a lot of Scorsese. I know, it’s bad. I’ve only seen TheAviator, Goodfellas, and Gangs of New York, and blasphemously only liked The Aviator. I’ve been meaning to give The Departed a shot for a long time now, because of its best picture status and amazing cast. Let me just say it’s moving a lot of Scorsese movies higher up on my watchlist.
The Departed features a double double cross. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) are both cops with mob connections. Costigan is a cop that goes undercover in the mob, but Sullivan is in the mob and goes undercover as a cop. The best thing about The Departed is that they are not the only two who are lying, a lot of people are and it’s very interesting to see how everybody deals with it and the consequences, both emotionally and practically.
Costigan graduates from the police academy, and the first thing that happens is that he gets kicked out. Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) call him into their office and tell him how his undercover mission is going to go. There are going to arrest him so he’ll be kicked out of the Staties (their nickname for the state police) and then Costigan’s going to have to get in with Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and keep on the lookout for some micro-processors that he stole. Of all things, this is what they’re going to try to get him on. The reason they picked him is because his uncle used to work with Costello back in the day, but his father never did and that’s what (I think anyway; I don’t think he explicitly said so) motivated him to become a cop. Costello is an Irish mobster they’ve been trying to take down for a long time, but haven’t been able to.
Meanwhile, Costello has a mole of his own in the staties: Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Scorsese shows Costello “buying” him some groceries when he was a kid, and he’s built Sullivan since then to become a cop so he can see what the staties are throwing at him. Sullivan does very well in the police, becoming a detective right out of graduation and then moving up again when Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) puts him in charge of finding Costello’s mole in the police. This is ironic of course, because it means he’s looking for himself. Sullivan also hooks up with a police psychologist along the way, Madolyne (Vera Farminga). Basically, Sullivan has it made.
Things go along, with Costigan managing to get Costello to trust him and Sullivan continuing in the police. Costigan seems to be the more morally correct character of the two, not just because his loyalties actually lie with the cops unlike Sullivan, but also because he has a serious problem with all of this lying he has to do. Not just the fact that he could get caught and comes really close multiple times, but also because he does not feel right about committing all of the crimes that he has to in order to evade suspicion. There are a couple scenes where he gets into playing the part of a mob enforcer a bit too much and hits guys he’s not even supposed to be hitting. Most indicative of his moral dilemma is when he meets up with Queenan and Digham and asks why they have to get to get Costello on the micro processor thing when they could get him on any number of murders that Costigan has witnessed or helped commit since going undercover. It reveals just how much he wants to get out of his situation. Sullivan, on the other hand, just wants to keep doing what he’s doing and is totally fine with it unless he gets made. No qualms or side effects whatsoever.
There’s also the thing with Madolyn. She is Sullivan’s girlfriend and even eventually moves in with him, but she sees Costigan because he’s having trouble with the whole undercover and having no concrete identity thing. He actually goes to see a shrink, which seems really out of character for an Irish cop/mobster; “what Freud said about the Irish is this: we’re the only people who are impervious to psychoanalysis.” Anyway, he asks for some drugs because he’s having panic attacks and one thing leads to another and eventually they have a thing. Now Madolyn is leading a double life as well, and then she eventually finds about Sullivan’s lying and that just shows how much lying is going on around here. I also think it’s interesting that Costigan and Sullivan are in opposite but somehow complementary situations and they both go for the same woman, like they are two sides of the same coin so to speak.
I just can’t resist it any longer; talking about Madolyn makes it impossible for me not to acknowledge what I at least see as the multitude of Hitchcock references in this film. I don’t know if that’s actually what they are, but I know Scorsese likes Hitchcock (as do we all) because I read a book about Vertigo and he wrote the forward. I also think this is pretty ironic because Hitchcock stated that he would never do a mob movie, which is partially what this is. Anyway, the clearest reference (and the one I think is the most likely to actually be a reference and not just me making things up) is when Madolyn finds out about Sullivan’s double crosses while he’s taking a shower. Scorsese points the camera right at the shower head as Sullivan turns the water on, which Hitchcock also does after the water is turned on in the famous shower scene from Psycho. What makes it a clever reference and not a mere rip off is that no one comes in to stab Sullivan in the shower or anything; Madolyn simply discovers the truth about him. This is interesting because it’s as if Norman Bates with his two identities is in the shower while Marion Crane somehow discovers his secret. Of course, there are differences, but the similarities are there and they help show how Sullivan’s identity is split, but we already understand that he is lying about it and that he is not mentally unsound.
Then there is the person of Madolyn herself. Her name is the same as Madeline from Vertigo, even if they’re spelled differently. She’s blond, as Hitchcock always liked to use, and also has two identities with two different men (I could into how her dual identity is defined by sleeping with more than one guy, but I’ll leave out the feminist criticism for now). Madeline literally has two different identities, so again this is not a straight Vertigo rip off but a clever reference. Madolyn’s dual identity in The Departed is more figurative, but if you know about Vertigo it helps you understand what Scorsese is getting at (at least I think). Also when a certain body fell from a building it really reminded me of Hitchcock’s body tossing in Vertigo. It fell at a slower rate than I expected it to, which also happened in Vertigo. I’m not sure exactly what this signifies, if it was done on purpose, or if Scorsese just wanted the body to fall slowly so we could see who it was. On the other hand, this was really when I started to notice all of these references, so maybe Scorsese was just giving us a heads up.
Another aspect that is more Hitchcock inspired than an actual reference, is that Scorsese does his death scenes really well. The double crosses all lead up to basically all of the characters getting picked off one by one with the time compressed between them. Scorsese does not make death pretty or even heroic here, which is something I think Hitch achieved with the shower scene in Pyscho. Marion Crane is supposed to be this beautiful woman that everyone’s in to, but when she dies her hair is all messed up and she’s just lying pathetically on the floor. Nobody really looks more unattractive than normal when they’re dying here, but they do not get any epic Shakespearian final words. One of the characters’ final word is just “okay” and then he gets shot. That’s it. Scorsese doesn’t even give most people that. One good thing though, is that this is Scorsese and we all know the man values his violence, so even though the deaths are quick for the most part you can still get all the brutality involved.
Ok, enough with the Hitchcock already. As I stated before, I was really excited to see this film because of the awesome cast, and they did not disappoint. DiCaprio I thought was especially good as the character with the moral conflict. I really liked how he played Costigan’s desperation to get out of his situation and just be himself again. Especially touching was the scene where he gives Madolyn this envelop with secret information in it, and seems surprised when he admits that Madolyn is the only person he can trust. It seems right then as if he’s just baffled at what his life has become because of all this lying, and I really felt for the guy for the whole movie but especially right then. That’s not to say that DiCaprio can’t play the villainous side of Costigan as well, because sometimes he’s pretty brutal even when he’s not pretending to be a mobster. I was still on his side though, even when he was being really harsh to Sullivan, because I absolutely hated Sullivan and thought he had it coming to him.
Matt Damon was very convincing as Sullivan, evidenced in how much I hated the guy. I’m not used to hating Matt Damon on screen so I’m glad he was able to pull that off. One thing that did bother me about his performance though was that even though he was able to do a Boston accent, he seemed to lay it on way thicker than everybody else so it was more obvious when he would loose it. Accents are not directly tied to acting ability, but I think maybe he should have either dialed it down or up so that it would be more consistent. It only bothered me because it distracted me a bit; whenever he dropped it I noticed it was gone, and when he was laying it on think again I was like “oh the accent’s back.” Regardless, I still hated his character as I should have and that’s the most important thing. I had a similar reaction to Mark Wahlberg; there’s just something about him that I don’t like and since he was constantly ragging on Leo he really pissed me off. However, that’s probably how I should have felt so I’ll admit he was good. Nicholson was as good as ever here. He had a creepy growley voice and that creepy grin, and also weird hair. I really loved how Costello would wear leopard print a lot, as if to say “yeah I’m such a dangerous mobster that I can dress like a middle aged woman and get away with it, because if you have a problem with it I’ll blow your f-ing brains out.” It was never actually acknowledged but I felt like it was implied.
I really liked The Departed a lot, and I’m glad I can finally relate to people who really like Scorsese better now. Before I saw this film, I recognized that he was a major director but didn’t really admire him that much personally. The Departed is both a good cop film and a good mob film, and really well paced. Even though it is two and a half hours long it did not feel laborous to watch and it pulled me in immediately and never let up. The soundtrack is also worth mentioning as it features The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd to great effect. The Departed won four of the five Oscars it was nominated for: best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best editing. It only lost a supporting actor for Wahlberg. Though Scorsese perhaps should have won earlier, as far as I can tell The Departed is one of the best films in his filmography and it makes sense to me that he would win for it.
“Honesty is not synonymous with truth.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars