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“I Erased You”: Identity, or Lack Thereof, in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at The Aviator. This week, we’re looking at The Departed. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s Best Picture winning gangster film.

The Departed is about a lot of different things.

As one might expect from a Martin Scorsese film, it is very much an exploration of a certain type of masculinity. It is 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 kind of hyper-exaggerated American masculinity to its logical endpoint, as Frank Costello serves as a nexus point tying together sex and violence without producing an heir and Colin Sullivan is forced to discuss his impotence as his girlfriend eats a banana.

However, The Departed ties into some of Scorsese’s other core themes – most notably the director’s recurring fascination with identity. Of course, The Departed is an adaptation of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, so it makes sense that identity would be a core theme. The film is the parallel stories of two undercover movies; Colin Sullivan and Billy Costigan. Colin is a criminal posing as a cop, while Billy is a cop posing as a criminal. Naturally, the theme of identity and self-image inevitably ends up tied up in all this.

That said, The Departed is perhaps most interesting for how it ties back to Scorsese’s larger filmography. So many of Scorsese’s films are tied back to the idea of human connection and belonging, even as extreme counter-examples in films like “god’s lonely man” Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Particularly in Scorsese’s crime movies like Goodfellas and Casino, there is a clear emphasis on the idea of “belonging” and “conforming”, with his films often focusing on outsiders (like the Irish Henry Hill or the Jewish Sam Rothstein) trying to blend into the largely Italian American mob.

The Departed is largely built around the Irish mob in Boston, and so exists at a remove from Scorsese’s typical interest in the Italian mob in New York. (Notably, despite its Boston setting, large parts of The Departed were actually shot in New York City.) However, Scorsese’s portrayal of criminal life in The Departed marks a clear point of contrast from Goodfellas and Casino. While the characters in Goodfellas and Casino inevitably betray the bonds of family and loyalty to bond them together, they still acknowledge their importance. This is not the case in The Departed.

In The Departed, all of the characters eventually confront the reality that they exist in liminal spaces, caught more in the gravity of larger forces than held in place by ties of blood. The Departed marks a departure from Scorsese’s earlier crime films – arguably including Mean Streets and even Age of Innocence – because it completely disregards any sense of common community or shared identity. As Frank Costello opines in the opening scene, “When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”

Of course, it’s important not to overly romanticise the criminals in Goodfellas and Casino, who inevitably betray one another the moment that it becomes mildly convenient to do so. These characters often rationalise their behaviour and present themselves as honourable thieves, but their actions ultimately betray them. Nevertheless, inspired by his own childhood growing up in an Italian American community, Scorsese seems to believe that these criminals can impose something resembling order.

After all, the mob are presented as a fact of life in Raging Bull, and as the sort of ordering principle with which Jake LaMotta must grapple if he ever hopes to advance. In Scorsese’s films, it is often better to be on the inside than the outside, even if membership of such a group is fickle. In Casino, Andy Stone is ultimately dispatched by the bosses at the first hint of trouble because he is not Italian American. As Nicky explains it, “As much as they liked him, I mean, he wasn’t one of us. He wasn’t Italian.”

As such, The Departed is interesting because its characters operate in a world entirely without any sense of loyalty or family bonds. The Departed is notable as Scorsese’s second major film to focus primarily on the Irish-American community rather than his own Italian-American community, following Gangs of New York. It is interesting that the films should arrive in (relatively) quick succession in Scorsese’ filmography.

While Scorsese’s accounts of the Italian-American community were largely grounded in his own experiences, his interest in Irish-Americans was more academic. In his short documentary The Neighbourhood, Scorsese talks about his own fascination with discovering that the neighbourhood in which he grew up was not always Italian. It had been Irish beforehand. Revisiting that neighbourhood with his daughter after 9/11, he discovered that the demographics had changed again, as the neighbourhood had become Chinese-American.

Gangs of New York is largely a story about how the Irish became American, how the ethnic group integrated into American society. There’s a strong tension running through Gangs of New York about the notion of Irish identity; Priest Vallon’s attempt to build an expansive Irish coalition with real political power is ultimately realised by his son Amsterdam, but it is juxtaposed with the realisation that so many Irish characters within the film like Mulraney and McGloin had assimilated completely to the point of trying (and failing) to erase their Irish identity.

Of course, Gangs of New York ends rather brutally and cynically, with the big conflict between William Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon cut short by the Draft Riots. History catches up with them, and washes it all away. Gangs of New York concludes on the grim note that nothing in the movie ultimately mattered, that everything within it would be forgotten and that perhaps American history would find itself trapped in these 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 into existing social structures, often advancing their own privilege at the expense of other minority groups. While Irish identity remains the subject of much fascination – look at the coverage of Barack Obama or Joe Biden’s Irish roots – it is largely “mainstream.” Saint Patrick’s Day is a mainstream American holiday in a way that Chinese New Year or even Columbus Day is not.

The Departed immediately establishes Irishness as an ethnic identity. Costello spends a great deal of time defining the boundaries of his domain by reference to other ethnic gangs. Costigan properly introduces himself to Costello by beating up two Italian-American gangsters attempting to extort protection money from a local shopkeeper. “You know something, they just do not stop having the mafia in Providence,” Costello sighs in conversation with Costigan.

The film even opens juxtaposing race riots in Boston with Frank Costello meditating on the Irish American experience. He frames his lecture as something of a counterpoint to the violence on the streets; implicitly juxtaposing the Irish-American experience with that of African Americans. This feels like a logical extension of Gangs of New York, where the anti-Irish prejudice played out against the backdrop of the debate over slavery and where arguments within the Irish-American community were cut short by the Draft Riots.

Even outside of Gangs of New York, Scorsese has long been fascinated with the elasticity of Irish American identity, the way in which the Irish seem to be able (and perhaps even eager) to abandon their identities in order to more efficiently integrate into existing power structures. It is perhaps present in Henry Hill, who readily conceals and obscures his Catholic background in order to better integrate with Karen’s family in Goodfellas. It is also present with Frank Sheehan in The Irishman, who seems to have no identity or agency beyond being whatever others expect him to be.

Naturally, the Irish have benefited from the privilege of being able (and willing) to so completely assimilate. After all, there has yet to be an Italian-American or a Chinese-American President of the United States. There were even some vestiges of old anti-Irish sentiment when John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic nomination. However, it is notable how swiftly and how efficiently the Kennedy family were able to parlay their roots in the liquor business into a legitimate political dynasty.

The Kennedy family haunts The Departed. Frank Costello’s opening monologue seems to take the Kennedy family as a model for his plan to have loyal soldiers infiltrate the local police department. “I don’t want to be a product of my environment – I want my environment to be a product of me,” he states. “Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a f&!king job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace.” In a very real sense, John F. Kennedy is established as the first “departed” referenced in The Departed.

Kennedy haunts so much of Scorsese’s twenty-first century filmography; Joseph Kennedy appears as a character in the final season of Boardwalk Empire, while Jimmy Hoffa’s feud with the Kennedys drives a lot of The Irishman. Both the final season of Boardwalk Empire and The Irishman directly invoke Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II, which kept its Kennedy-related themes below the surface. Indeed, in The Irishman, Scorsese casts Boardwalk Empire star Jack Huston as Bobby Kennedy, casting a member of one mythic Irish dynasty to play another.

Colin Sullivan’s characterisation is very much informed by this arc. He spends extended stretches of the moving looking longingly at Massachusetts State House. He even buys a property with a clear view of it, designed to further advance his social status. “You move in, you’re upper class by about Thursday,” the real estate agent promises. When Barrigan finds Sullivan contemplating the building, he chides, “Look, forget about it. Your old man was a janitor and his son’s only a cop.” Still, his live-in girlfriend Madolyn joking answers the phone, “Mayor Sullivan’s Office.”

Virtually everything that Sullivan does is designed to help him conform to others’ expectations of him, including seducing Madolyn so that he can play the role of a good family man. “Marriage is an important part of getting ahead,” Ellerby assures him. “Lets people know you’re not a homo; married guy seems more stable; people see the ring, they think at least somebody can stand the son of a b!tch; ladies see the ring, they know immediately you must have some cash or your cock must work.”

Indeed, one of the more interesting and complicated readings of The Departed suggests that Sullivan is actually a closeted gay man. After all, sex and sexuality are a large part of the film – reportedly due to Jack Nicholson’s pushing of the film in that direction. Damon apparently followed Nicholson’s lead, suggesting that Sullivan should be juxtaposed with Nicholson’s hypersexual Costello. Indeed, The Departed makes a point to suggest that Sullivan is impotent. He suffers erectile dysfunction with Madolyn and it is implied her baby resulted from sex with Billy Costigan.

The Departed is deliberately ambiguous on this point, but its recurring fascination with sexual imagery and identity lends itself to this reading; the meeting with Costello in the porno theatre with the giant black dildo, the repeated graphic sexual references to Madolyn that seem to make Sullivan uncomfortable, his fixation on the sexual orientation of the firemen playing football. It’s entirely possible that Sullivan’s impotence was simply designed to indicate that he is under a lot of pressure, but Costigan is under just as much pressure and has no such problems.

Still, regardless of the exact nature of the identity beneath his cover, The Departed repeatedly emphasises that Sullivan is “passing.” He is pretending to be something that he is not in order to advance his social status. The Departed hinges on Sullivan and Costigan being able to compartmentalise and abandon important parts of their identity in order to do the work that they do. That work seems innately tied to Scorsese’s conception of Irishness as an identity, as juxtaposed with his typical portrayals of the Italian American community.

To pick one obvious example, Costello’s primary henchman is named “Mister French” and played by British actor Ray Winstone despite apparently being an Irish mobster. (The film points out this absurdity, with Costigan asking Costello, “His real name Mister French?” Costello simply replies, “No.”) This is neatly juxtaposed with Scorsese’s emphasis on the recurrence of very specific names in the Italian American community in Goodfellas.

Reflecting on her wedding, Karen recalls the extended family of mob boss Paulie attended the celebration. “Paulie and his brothers had lots of sons and nephews,” Karen tells the audience. “And almost all of them were named Peter or Paul. It was unbelievable. There must have been two dozen Peters and Pauls at the wedding. Plus, they were all married to girls named Marie. And they named all their daughters Marie.” Many of these characters were played by Italian American actors. It’s interesting to contrast that with the fungibility of the Irish American characters in The Departed.

The Departed is fascinated by this. It seems to suggest that this lack of a strong group identity is something close to a psychosis. Over dinner, Sullivan reminds Madolyn, “What Freud said about the Irish is: We’re the only people who are impervious to psychoanalysis.” Sullivan jokes about how hard it must be for Madolyn to have to work as a police psychologist in a department populated by “Mick cops”, but the film reinforces this 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 slip effortlessly between the seeming binary roles of “cop” and “criminals” also disconnects them from any tangible identity. They are essentially adrift, and can count on nobody. The only thing that proves Costigan is actually a police officer 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 that you’re a cop. Maybe we’ll just erase your file.”

The climax of the movie hinges on this line, on the idea that Costigan’s identity is so fragile and so delicate that it can be wiped away by a few key strokes. When Sullivan realises that Costigan has identified him as Costello’s rat within the police department, Sullivan erases Costigan’s file in retaliation. As a result, Costigan is forced to rely on the trust of his old friend Brown and the faith of Madolyn. Ultimately, this is not enough to save Costigan.

That is a terrifying way to live. Virtually everybody in the film turns out to betraying everybody else. Even as the police struggle to arrest Frank Costello, Costello himself is actually working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (Costello was modelled on Whitey Bulger, although he shared the name of a mobster with alleged ties to Joseph Kennedy.) Costello dismisses postmortem reports that Timothy Delahunt was informing on the mob to the police, arguing it’s just a distraction from the real mole, but it’s certainly not impossible that there were two undercover cops.

Similarly, towards the end of the film, Sullivan discovers that Barrigan is also working for Costello within the police department. “Did you think you were the only one he had on the inside?” Barrigan asks Sullivan. The truth is that there is simply no way to know. Everything might be a lie. Everyone might be the exact opposite of what they present themselves as being. It’s a nightmare, even beyond the heightened and stylised thriller in which Sullivan and Costigan find themselves.

Naturally, such an environment does not breed loyalty. Characters who are nominally aligned with one another inevitably betray one other as the climax builds. After making contact with Costigan, Sullivan 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 movie’s final scene, as Sullivan arrives home to find Dignam waiting to ambush him, he seems more resigned than horrified. “Okay,” he simply states, as if accepting his fate.

Scorsese has described The Departed as a response to the War on Terror that emerged from 9/11, describing it as “moral ground zero”, and this is most obvious in the film’s very strange (and completely unresolved) “microprocessors” subplot that finds Costello selling some fake microprocessors to the Chinese while apparently holding on to the originals. At one point, Ellerby even enthusiastically chants “Patriot Act!” as he celebrates the wonderful funding and technology (and powers) no available to him in trying to take down a local mobster.

However, that War on Terror metaphor perhaps plays through the film’s emphasis on identity. After all, the War on Terror was largely defined on an incredibly nebulous “us versus them” logic, where “them” was left very vague. The War on Terror saw a spike in hate crimes against Muslim American communities, but it also saw more bizarre acts of xenophobia such as the branding of “French fries” as “freedom fries.” The march towards the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars was framed as a battle between “patriots” and those opposed; anyone on the other side could be a “traitor.”

This breaking down of group identity into an easily fungible binary is reflected within the central identity crisis at the heart of The Departed. If there is only “us” and “them”, and if “them” is constantly being redefined to include any person in opposition, then it can be very difficult to hold on to any tangible sense of self. This is idea of the sense of self, and its importance in determining an identity (and guiding a morality) is a major recurring interest for Scorsese.

Films like Taxi Driver and Raging 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 what it must feel like for an individual living as a divine representative on Earth. Shutter Island closes on the question whether it would be worse “to live as a monster or die a good man.” At its core, The Irishman condemns Frank Sheehan for his passivity and his refusal to take any moral responsibility for his own part in any violent acts.

The Departed just pushes these ideas to their logical extreme, imagining a world in which these characters have no strong tangible identity and – as a result – no strong loyalties, bonds or trust. It’s a bleak and brutal universe, arguably as cold as any Scorsese has ever imagined.

One Response

  1. “Plus, they were all married to girls named Marie. And they named all their daughters Marie.”

    Don’t you just love Catholic cultures?

    If I ever had a daughter and named her “Marie,” I’d be honoring my grandmother (first name), my other grandmother (first half of compound first name), my mother (first half of compound first name), and my sister (middle name). Talk about killing several birds with one stone.

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