As promised, here’s my piece on the movie The Departed and it’s treatment of the theme of identity. As a fair warning to those who haven’t seen the movie, there will be spoilers.
As usual, a quick synopsis:
The movie takes place in an Irish neighborhood of South Boston. At the start of the movie, a young boy, Colin Sullivan (portrayed by Matt Damon when he’s older) gets introduced to organized crime by local mob leader Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Fast forward a few years and you see Sullivan graduating Police Academy and joining the Massachusetts State Police to act as a mole for Costello. In the mean time, prior to graduating Police Academy, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is asked by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to drop out and to go undercover. They use Costigan’s family’s criminal track record as a means to get an insider into Costello’s gang. Sullivan perpetually diverts special forces attention or tips Costello before a possible raid, while Costigan attempts to set Costello up for capture.
Needless to say, they figure out that there’s a mole in both camps, and both men work to determine the other’s identity without getting discovered themselves.
The plot sets itself to be a commentary on identity, particularly in regards to the main three characters of the movie.
Frank Costello is confident, arrogant, greedy, and aggressive. Yet at the same time he is suspicious and threatened. At the start of the movie, when Costello is speaking to a young Sullivan, he says:
“When you decide to be something, you can be it. That’s what they don’t tell you in the church. When I was your age they would say we can become cops, or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”
Costello grew up in a world where he had to choose between two extremes: the cop and the criminal. At a face value we say he chose to be a criminal (and in many ways he did), yet, looking at his context more closely, it’s evident that he took a more ambivalent middle path. Yes, Costello is the cliche cold-hearted, maniac criminal, killing left and right. However, he was also a long-time FBI informant, trading information for a life outside of prison.
At the end of the day, Costello defined his life as being neither complete criminal nor complete cop. He lived life to get what he wanted, whether by sending criminals to prison or by killing competitors and breaking the law. Thus he lived according to his own rules. In his childhood, they gave him a choice of what to be or who to be, but that wasn’t good enough; no one had the right to decide for him where his life would be; no one could decide what his identity should be.
“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”
Costello is the prime example of man who lived to define his own identity, to never stray from it, and to ingrain it in the minds of his peers. Costello defined himself as the lord of his self-proclaimed domain, and made sure that no one could rob him of that identity. He is head mobster who has the women, the drugs, and the money. A rat in his crew? He would smoke them out, or go mad trying to; no one had the right to undermine that which he is and that he had made himself to be. With this unwavering arrogance, he drove himself into the grave. A challenge in the form of Costigan arose, and he didn’t know how to deal; he refused to change his method: his brusque and rash decision making. He refused to be more careful or more subtle because he is Costello–sly, brutal, and impossible to outsmart. Thus, in his stubbornness to waver from his identity, he was gunned down by the mole (Sullivan) whom he had raised to do his own bidding; he had been outsmarted by the product of his arrogance and pride.
Colin Sullivan is in perpetual confusion about who he is. Is he the product of Costello’s work, his kindness and guardianship? Or is he a self-made police detective? Does he live to serve himself, or to protect Costello from the law? Can he be as secure as he is without Costello’s hand playing a role in his life?
Throughout the movie, Sullivan moves his way up the work ladder, graduating from the Police Academy and joining the special forces investigation unit; even within the unit, he essentially became second in command. He meets a girl and plans on settling down with her. However even in that regard Costello has the ability to influence Sullivan; he threatens to lure Sullivan’s girlfriend away from him unless Sullivan shapes up and catches the rat in Costello’s gang. For every decision he makes as an officer, he has to consider what repercussions police activity will have on Costello’s activities. Every decision he makes has to serve to maintain his own reputation within the department but also to keep Costello out of harm’s way.
In many ways it seems that Sullivan has no independence; even as a grown man, he cannot make any decisions without thinking about Costello. Even when he feels that he needs to break away from the mobster, he sees no other way except moving away from Boston. Because of his history as a child, Costello was the nearest person he had to a father figure. Costello discussed life with Sullivan and mentored him. He provided Sullivan with the means to live (food, supplies, support) and only asked for Sullivan’s unadulterated loyalty. As a result though, the older he gets the more Sullivan hesitates and doubts his life circumstances. Did he ever have a choice in life? Is there where he wants to be, or is his life the product of Costello’s attention and nurturing? When Sullivan discovers that Costello is an FBI informant, he breaks. Was he tool this entire time; a tool this would soon be disposed of once Costello no longer saw use for him? If that’s the case the why had he been doing everything he had? He had risked everything, the security in his job (what would happen if his superiors found he had been a double agent?), the security in his relationship, and–in many ways–the security of his psychological well being, for a man who he thought had cared about him, but in reality would dispose of him at any moment in time. At this moment in time, Sullivan decides to stand up for himself and manage to save what little he has made of his life. He deceives Costello, ambushes him, and then shoots and kills the mobster, all in the hopes of maintaining his status at the police department and his relationship with his girlfriend. These are the two things that would have given him the opportunity to define the identity he never had the chance to independently discover and define.
However, it was too late. His actions led to his alienation; his girlfriend leaves him and he feels disconnected from the rest of the department. Just as he falls into the void of loneliness, Sergeant Dignam kills him.
Sullivan dies in an empty house, reflecting his own empty life. A life devoid of an identity.
Bill’s story is probably the most saddening, besides for the obvious reasons that he dies at the end of the movie at the hands of some unknown mole (not Sullivan) planted by Costello in the police in an earlier timeline.
Bill desires to become a police officer. He isn’t as intelligent or as skilled as Sullivan, but he aspires to become an officer. He puts in the effort needed to succeed in both the physical and academic aspects of his training. However, before he even gets a chance to graduate the academy, he is coerced to drop out by Captain Queenan and Sergeant Dignam and go undercover as a street thug. Bill’s family history, was packed with criminal activity; both his uncle, cousin, and father (correct me if I’m mistaken) had ties to organized crime. As a result, he was the prime candidate to go undercover and infiltrate Costello’s gang. Bill wanted to break away from his past, to define his own existence as an officer; he wanted to clean up his family’s history by his actions.
But he wasn’t able to break away from his past, and was merely dragged back into the same place he tried to crawl out from. The anxiety from the ambiguity surrounding his identity drives Costigan to near madness; Costigan sees a psychiatrist (who incidentally is Sullivan’s girlfriend), as a part of his probation, if I understood correctly. As a part of this guise, he meets with her in hopes of dealing with the anxiety and stress of being undercover. He even turns to medication to calm his nerves. From everyone in his surroundings, Costigan is fairly close with only two people: Captain Queenan and his psychiatrist, Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga). These are the two he is most open with (minus for the fact that Madden doesn’t know he is undercover). In many ways, there are the two people who know Costigan the best, and with whom he is closest to being his true self. However, Queenan dies halfway through the movie and Madden chooses to pursue a life with Sullivan. Losing both of them meant losing his opportunity to redefine his identity.
So who is he? A cop or a thug. At one point when he meets up with Queenan and Dignam this split identity causes him to snap:
Dignam: Hey, what do you think you can pop somebody and there’s a special card to play? That guy, Jimmy Bags whose jaw you broke happens to work undercover for the Boston Police Department.
Bill Costigan: I’m going fucking nuts, man. I can’t be someone else every fuckin’ day. It’s been a year of this. I’ve had enough of this shit!
Dignam: Calm down, alright? Most people in the world do it every day. What’s the big deal?
Bill Costigan: Well, I’m not them, alright? I’m not fucking them, okay?
Dignam: Exactly. You’re nobody. You signed the papers, remember? Now we’re the only two people on the face of this earth that even know you’re a cop. How about we just erase your file, huh? How ’bout that? How about we erase your file and then bang, you’re just another soldier for Costello open to arrest for I don’t know how many felonies. Huh? What do you say we do that, Captain?
That is exactly what ends up happening. Once Sullivan discovers Costigan’s identity as the rat, he deletes Costigan’s entire file. There is no record of Costigan ever being a trooper; he’s practically wiped from all records. He becomes an enigma, an enigma who lacks the ability to redefine his own life. He has no money to pick himself up from the bootstraps and carry on with his life. He has no recognition for the work he did as an undercover. He has lost the love of his life. And when he finally gets the chance to redefine his life again, when he captures Sullivan and attempts to take him into custody, he gets gunned down by some unknown, unnamed character, who wasn’t even present during the entirety of the movie. Some unknown kills another unknown–Costigan who was robbed of his identity, and forced to live without knowing or expressing who he truly is.
As always, thanks for taking the time to read an amateur’s musings. Feel free to comment below and/or leave recommendations!