FILM THEORY & CRITICISM
The Departed: A Study in Ego Dynamics
Martin Scorsese's gangster film The Departed (2006) can be read as a dramatization of ego development and pathology that uses its crime narrative and dramatis personae as a grid for mapping the psychological possibilities in human beings (though it is especially concerned with men). Cinematically, it is a true Hollywood classical crime genre in that it focuses on a few main characters (and especially one), who have clear obstacles to overcome, events that have clear causes and effects, uses location shooting and largely unobtrusive filmmaking techniques, lots of fast paced action, violence, sex, and has a fairly well resolved ending (Phillips, 292). For the savvy viewer (which is what our college courses are teaching us to be) it is also a study in human nature and the traits that drive, destroy, or save us.
The three key characters in the story function symbolically as Id, Ego, and Superego, though not immutably of course (because the ego structure itself is fluid and self-permeable). The main antagonist Francis Costello (Jack Nicholson) is a self-made Irish mafia "boss". He's a trader in all things illicit and illegal who teaches a young neighborhood-boy protégé that "You have to take what you want in life." Costello is pure Id, his primal drives and urges are enacted without restraint, reflection or remorse. In the opening scene we hear his megalomaniacal chant "I never wanted to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me." In most of the early scenes, where he is recruiting, seducing and conditioning his protégé into his own criminal lifestyle, Costello is bathed in dark shadows and an ominous red glow. The association of red with Satan and the hellish world of corrupt values visually tint the close-up frames of the over friendly Francis-who-bestows-groceries. (Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name.)
The young grow in the light that shines upon them, and thus Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who was swathed in angelic light as a child1, grows under Costello's rouge ambience into the hybrid creature that negotiates between the ideals of church and state and the indulgences of Francis. Colin carries the egoic function that seeks to balance the drives of the id with the punishing consequences of the superego. That he seeks power within those structures (church/state, which are superego structures) is in fact perfectly suited to the defensive function of the ego. In this regard, he protects Costello and himself from consequences and self-awareness.
When William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is asked during his interview with Detectives Queenan and Dignam "Do you want to be a cop or just appear to be one?" it is ironic because he actually does have a conscience and a distaste for hypocrisy, and because his doppelganger is the poseur while Billy is motivated by his family history to oppose corruption. He is the superego spying into the doings of the id to bring it under the control of the law, and to turn the defensive function of the ego into one toward maturity (instead of delusion).
This dynamic sets in place intrapsychic elements situated in characters that allow the story to unfold externally while further dynamics occur interpsychically. Thus, the mirroring function of ego and superego is made explicit via the visual twinning of Sullivan with Costigan. Both men are young and beautiful, and look so much alike that at times it is nearly impossible to distinguish them. It's no accident that a pivotal character in the film is a female psychiatrist with whom both men fall in love. The fun doesn't stop here, however, because we also have a father figure in Detective Queenan who plays good dad (for Costigan) to Costello's bad daddy-surrogate to both Costigan and Sullivan. Queenan also plays good cop to Dignam's "bad" cop. There is so much psychological tension predetermined in the constellation of these characters that the meaning of the action is almost intolerably heightened. This is a film that requires multiple viewings to understand, and merits them just for appreciation.
I want to shift focus from my reading of the character's psychological definitions and have some fun unpacking a little of Scorsese's filmic meanings. To return to the opening sequence, Costello's voiced narration is set against a visual backdrop of archival footage of civic unrest and civil-rights demonstrations of the late 1950's and early 1960's. This situates Costello in a history that predates that of either of his "sons' (Collie or Billy), and reveals something of the cultural conflicts against which he built his empire. (That Costello is our portal into the film's narrative of power-run-amok reinforces that he is the unmediated id.) The suggestion of chaos, civil disobedience, and the sexual revolution that happened alongside the civil-rights movement also suggests the fragile position of the state and church to impose order and control corruption.
The film's mise-en-scene establishes the inner-city environment with images of old abandoned warehouses, graffitied walls and trashed-up alleyways, and the working class Irish values with settings in grungy neighborhood bars, pictures of Catholic iconography, and men drinking beer from cans while striking a few golf balls.
Row after row of uniformed cadets in training and taking exams fill several frames of action as we see Sullivan's trajectory into the State Police Force "the Staties". The images of drone-like anonymity underscore how important it might be to a young man to distinguish himself by whatever means—through a mob connection, or through a dangerous recruitment into an undercover role. Again, we see life's irony as the scout who goes undercover for Queenan, Billy Costigan, undergoes a downward trend in his lifestyle, accented in the mise-en-scene against the upward mobility of Sullivan. As poor Billy works his body against atrophy in his jail cell, Collie begins courting the beautiful blonde doctor who works for the state, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). Later, of course, Billy will meet with Madolyn professionally and then personally.
Moving along, when Billy is tracking "the rat" on the inside, after Costello has given him the envelope with names and numbers of his aides (so that Sullivan can out "the rat" in Costello's group) they are dressed almost identically. As Billy chases Sullivan down a darkened alleyway in what appears to be Chinatown, he stops momentarily before a butcher's window filled with hanging meats. The camera moves behind the window for just a brief moment, framing Billy perfectly among them—dead meat. A few seconds later Billy catches sight of Sullivan—his exact image in a sweat jacket and baseball hat—in a hanging chime made from slivered strips of mirror. The fragmented self/other is caught in the reflection, somewhat disorienting and frustrating Billy in his pursuit. William H. Phillips, in his classroom textbook film; AN INTRODUCTION, discusses such filmic examples as these; difficult to catch in just one viewing of the film, and so subtle in their implicit meanings that they may not be understood at all. Never-the-less, it's a brilliant scene, with its film-noirish night shooting, and exaggerated shadows stalking one another.
Several match-cuts effect seamless transitions between scenes such as when Sullivan sits at the left side (viewer's right) of the framed window in his office after ordering his men to trail Queenan, and learning of his violent death at the hands of Costello's goons. This frame is matched by a cut to Dignam, sitting in the same position of Queenan's office window, absorbing the shock of his death. Another example of match-cuts used to "suture" the story and perhaps highlight meanings implicit in the frequent use of envelopes in the mise-en-scene can be found when Madolyn receives the manila envelope from Billy, locks it away in her desk, and then in the next frame lays a different envelope across Sullivan's torso. In this envelope awaits surprising news for Sullivan, a sonogram of the baby Madolyn carries, whose paternity may not be certain (though Colin doesn't know this yet). The following shot cuts to yet another envelope, this one addressed to Sullivan from Billy- another envelope, another secret surprise. As the envelopes each catalyze further important actions in the story, the use of match-cut edits and close, tightly framed shots foreground their potency, and foreshadow the ultimate conclusive power of the envelope held secretly by Madolyn. Therein, we surmise, lays the truth to the rat's identity, and the potential for justice to finally be enacted. When Dignam whacks Colin Sullivan in his apartment, the audience is left feeling pretty certain that we were right about the envelope and it's secret. The contents of the unconscious have been exposed, and the false ego killed in order for the superego to maintain order in a world of chaos. The final frame of the film shows the triumphal Vatican-like domed roof of the State Capitol building perfectly framed in the dead man's balcony window. All is restored, but not for long because life being what it is after all, another rat soon enters the picture.
As fun as it is to read a film in terms of one's point of view or a particular philosophy, it is ultimately the author's work. There is no way to know if Scorsese means to treat the dramatis personae as the differentiated aspects of the ego structure, but the film's elements certainly enable that reading.
- My impression of much of Scorsese's use of light is that he is influenced by paintings of Catholic imagery that place light from above to indicate the presence of the divine, or light coming from the faces of saints and martyrs to indicate their beatific state. I do not have any specific examples in mind to reference, but am thinking of artists such as Rembrandt or perhaps Caravaggio. This is not an academic argument, just a note on what may influence the image-making creativity of Scorsese.