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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?”

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