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.


  1. 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.


By Tiel Lundy on January 25, 2011 at 2:46 PM

Whether or not Scorsese intended the tripartite ego structure of the three characters, it's a useful and apt reading of the relationships among the men. (No need for the disclaimer at the end of your essay. You made a compelling case and should stand by it!) I also appreciate your close formal reading of the editing and how it "sutures" together the characters of Billy and Collin.

Fine work, Olivia!

By Jason Ernst on March 28, 2011 at 1:21 PM

This is an intriguing article. The notion of id, ego and superego as anthropomorphized between the key main characters is insightful, however I think there is much more than could go into the analysis. The phenomenon of mirror stage among the two characters, Castigan and Sullivan, is distinct in that they both lack selfhood (both are essentially opposing double agents, mirrors of each other in action and position). Their likeness shows that if they see themselves, they see the other and vice versa. Which means when they see themselves they are constantly questioning which element of their Self they actually are experiencing: their actual self, or the disjointed mirror image of their Self. Since they are both in the mirror stage, per se, they must question what differentiates the other "image" from their own sense of self. In this way, they are linked in the same way an actual person relates to his own image: the visual image from the mirror supplies a phenomenological wholeness to the person. In other words, each person (Castigan and Sullivan) rely on the other to create their own sense of wholeness or complete self.

Which lends well to the story: Each "half" of the identity is attempting to exert power of the other, in order to determine their identity (the other half) as well as their own. According to Lacan's theory, each person in the mirror is going to feel aggressive behavior towards the image- in order to differentiate themselves and subjugate the other. By subjugating the image they see, they are giving power to themselves -or so they think. Castigan and Sullivan, in battling their other "image self" is actually trying to gain power over the other and keep it for themselves. However, according to Hegel's master-slave theory, each character is struggling to enslave the other, thus showing their power and sublate the -as they see it- "object" to their "subjective view". Each attempts to become the master while making the other the slave. This corresponds to their roles in the film as each others' antagonist as well as the object image they see in the "mirror". However, as Hegel points out, even once a slave is subjugated to the master, the master finds that their relationship defines the master's position. That is, the master finds that he is not a master without a slave, and must rely on the slave for his identity. The slave, on the other hand, is much more free -according to Hegel- in that he is allowed his own consciousness, something which the master is denied.

This follows the film, to a point. The characters Castigan and Sullivan are each vying to exert their power and their Being over the other half of the image. Only once they feel a loss of power (Sullivan finds he no longer needs -or can trust- Costello; and Castigan loses his sense of self through the death of the only person who knew his true identity -Queenan) does either character experience the rush of consciousness (until then they were limited by the consciousness of the 'master') of the slave and they are free to act as though their "true consciousnesses" would.

This is a great film, and you've done a masterful beginning analysis of it. It would serve your paper to flush out and examine each aspect further. I'd be more than happy to work on it with you and discuss, just let me know!

By Alex Fenaughty on April 12, 2011 at 12:22 AM

First of all I would like to thank you Olivia, for choosing this movie to explore and for your observations. You made a compelling case for the characters as distinct Freudian consciousnesses, and I particularly enjoyed your subtle nod to the audio used to characterize Costello, a detail I had missed in my previous viewings.

There are two additional themes at work in this film which I believe augment your existing interpretation, and the first of these was touched upon by Jason in his response: the doppelganger roles of Costigan and Sullivan are repeatedly referenced throughout the film. The final theme at work is the manner in which the film acts as a racial narrative for the Boston Irish population.

I'll begin by expounding upon the second theme before moving to the first, because I believe the ethnic-socio-political backgrounds of the characters (that is to say, their Irish-ness) colors the intertwined narrative of Costigan and Sullivan. The film makes its cultural setting clear with Costello's opening monologue: Boston's underbelly, and the Irish population which jockeys for position within it. From there, the film is rife with references to the characters' Irish backgrounds. Costello quotes Joyce to a young Sullivan. Dignam calls Costigan a "lace-curtain Irish ...", a slur used to refer to Irish families who emigrated to America during the Potato Famine and adopted WASP customs and mannerisms in an attempt to fit in (my thanks to Jeremy Gee for pointing this out). Sullivan references Freud's supposed quip that the Irish are impervious to psychoanalysis in conversation with Madden (a nice tie in with the film's obvious Freudian components, but as for Freud I can find no evidence that he ever actually uttered the line). The mutual Irish background mentioned by the characters is also one perpetually laced with struggle. Costello's opening monologue focuses on the busing riots of the 1970's, and draws a parallel between Kennedy's assumption of the presidency and the eventual dominance of the Irish in Boston. Barrigan catches Sullivan daydreaming while looking at the capitol and reminds him of his class: "Forget it. Your father was a janitor, his son's only a cop". Dignam criticizes the recidivist criminal branch of Costigan's father's family, in contrast with the comparatively well-to-do family of his mother. And in response to this criticism, Costello invokes Hawthorne: "Families are always rising and falling in America, am I right?"

It is on to this social, ethnic, and political background that the characters of Sullivan and Costigan are placed, and through this lens that the intricacies of their doppelganger relationship becomes apparent. In terms of personality, Sullivan and Costigan are essentially the same character- intelligent, ambitious, creative and occasionally reckless, and as the characters embark on their separate double-lives, the similarities between the two's situations become readily apparent. To further this similarity, Scorsese synchronizes the actions of the two at key points, so Sullivan moves into his apartment with a view of the capitol (you move in, you're upper class by Tuesday) while Costigan goes to jail. Later, while Sullivan disparages the cuisine while wooing Madden at an expensive dinner, Costigan sits in an ER after incapacitating two thugs, and spares a single glance at the attractive doctor stitching his hand up.

Once the film's Freudian undertones come in to play the duality becomes doubly loaded- Costigan clubs a man's head with a metal pipe (with a quick shot of blood-spatter against a wall), while Madden breaks a banana in half and entreats Sullivan to discuss his ostensible erectile-dysfunction with her.

The mirrored paths of the duo come to a head through their respective relationships with Costello and Madden. In relation to Sullivan and Costigan's duality, Costigan exists somewhere between the role of a father figure, and a suggestion of what either of the two characters could become. Sullivan becomes Costello's protege following the death of the boy's father, and Costello and Costigan reminisce in a diner about the younger man's father and uncle, and their fiercely aggressive, protective natures. This dynamic becomes most apparent when Costello becomes angry at the younger characters, for while Sullivan becomes defensive and attempts to placate the older man, Costigan takes offense and threatens to kill the mob boss should he continue endangering Costigan's life. During a conversation with Costello about possible rats in the group, Costigan muses, "I could be you... But I don't want to be you". Finally, the theme of Costello as a father to the younger characters reemerges in the final confrontation between Sullivan and Costello. After admitting that he has been an informant for the FBI, Costello attempts to reassure Sullivan, beginning "You're like-", to which Sullivan interrupts "A son to you?" Criticizing the notion of the pair's patriarchal relationship in light of Costello's less savory actions. Sullivan continues: is that what it's all about, all that murdering and fucking and no sons? What are you, shooting blanks?" It is at this point that Costello attempts to shoot Sullivan and is killed, apparently mortally offended by the suggestion of his sterility. Later, when Costigan reveals the tapes bestowed upon him by Costello's lawyer to Sullivan, Costigan remarks, "Costello trusted me most...", confirming Costello's choice of Costigan as favored son.

The characters' relationships with Madolyn Madden feature the same dual nature, this time with respect to the roles of lover and father rather than son. When Sullivan and Costello first court Madden, their methods are drastically different. Sullivan starts a conversation with Madden in an elevator, boasting of his job as a detective, mentioning that he is attending law school, and confidently assuring her that as a detective, he doesn't need her business card to find her. Conversely, Costigan enters Madden's life as an ex-con obligated to see her for therapy, and only begins to court her after engaging in an animated argument, during which he storms out of her office and demands a new psychologist. While Sullivan initially displays all the traits conventionally associated with male superiority- upward mobility, affluence, and charm, Costigan begins to woo Madden in spite of his vastly inferior background and abrasive mannerisms. This subversion of Sullivan's dominance is further undermined as Madden and Costigan continue discreetly seeing one another, and comes to a head when the two share a liaison prior to Madden moving in with Sullivan. As the film progresses and Madden's (as well as the audience's) sympathies begin to lean towards Costigan, the issue of the paternity of Madden's child arises, the suggested implication of which is that Costigan has cuckolded Sullivan and thus surpassed him not only as a son, but as a father.

By Olivia Kahlo on April 30, 2011 at 1:03 PM

Thank you to all who commented above... Let me say, this is a paper written during my first semester as a film studies student, and written in a state of "what the hell" panic the night before it was due. I was actually surprised that it went over with my esteemed teacher (Janet Robinson) so well. I agree that it is thin, and the doppelganger dynamic complicates the distinct categories of "ego" vs. "superego" that I assigned each in the analysis. At the time, I had not read any Lacan (mirror stage), although clearly something was going on with reflected imagery (mirrors) and shadowing (quite literally the shadows cast in the alley chase between Costigan-Sullivan.) The shadow is easily ascribed to Freudian/Jungian readings, as is the fragmented mirror. But, as pointed out above, a Lacanian reading of mirror imagery in the film might be more revealing.

I'm hoping to do a good deal more reading of Freud, Lacan, and Kristeva ONCE I FINALLY GRADUATE,LOL...

Thanks to all for such interest in the paper...bottom line---SCORSESE IS AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME WITH THIS FLICK!!!

By shahista on March 31, 2015 at 7:52 PM

Can someone do a personal response on this movie.
Themes learnt, how is it relevant to our society and how you feel about this movie.

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