"How fucked up are you?", Anti-Hero, Boston, Cop Movies, Crime, Crime Films, Drama, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Film, film review, fuck, Goodfellas, history, Human Developement, Identity, integrity, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mafia, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Scorsese, Martin Sheen, Masculinity Studies, Matt Damon, Personal Development, Police, Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino, The Departed, violence, Working Class Men
I had only seen Taxi Driver and Goodfellas when I watched Martin Scorsese tickle Stan Smith with his eyebrows. Despite my ignorance of the man’s larger body of work at the time the scene still made me laugh because I knew enough about Martin Scorsese to know that those eyebrows are their own caricature and I’m positive they have their own star on the Hollywood block somewhere between Cher and Elizabeth Taylor. The biopic of their life is supposed to be directed by Edgar Wright but that’s one of those rumors I don’t put much stock in.
I’m trying more and more to stop thinking so much about who I was. This is not because I hate my past, I don’t, but my regular reader has probably heard me describe my youth and adolescence as a less than enjoyable period of my life. I was a privileged kid who came from a great and loving family, but more and more I’ve realized that I have always had some modicum of depression. I just never really liked myself and I didn’t enjoy it much when people complimented me or told me they thought I was exceptional. This self loathing really kicked in during puberty and it was during this time that I found an outlet for the growing darkness and search for identity in three outlets: heavy metal, writing, and cinema. My sophomore English teacher helped me with the second two, first by giving me her water damaged paperback copy of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, and the second by recommending me to watch a film called Pulp Fiction.
Quentin Tarantino hit my brain like a typhoon and I just ingested the man’s collected work, and because I’ve always been the kind of person I am, when I find an artist that I like I disappear into their world and philosophy. There could never be enough interviews by Tarantino to read, there could never be enough essays written by Tarantino, and there could never be enough books about Tarantino. Somewhere, in all this research I kept hearing the same name over and over again, Martin Scorsese. This name became something important, and so when I got the chance I went to Hastings and checked out Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, and Goodfellas. If Tarantino was god, then Scorsese was a titan because I recognized something in the man’s oeuvre, even if I didn’t or couldn’t explain what it was.
Somewhere in all this endless consumption of media The Departed came to theaters and I begged my dad to take me to see it. To the man’s credit he did and afterwards we discussed Jack Nicholson’s character. Dad tried to argue that the man basically recycled every single one of his previous roles and formed it into one central character. I believed him at the time but now I’m a little dubious. I didn’t, and still don’t, see any of the President from Mars Attacks in Frank Costello but maybe if he’d spoken a little French.
The Departed is a movie that I must have watched somewhere around twenty or thirty times, and that number honestly feels a little low. Being a teenage boy the film mostly appealed to me fo it’s non-stop irreverence. One need only look at one early scene in the film when Mark Wahlberg’s character Staff Seargent Dignam makes a small address to members of an investigative unit:
Ellerby: [during a conference briefing about Costello and his crew] Staff Sergeant Dignam is our liaison to the the undercover department, his undercover work is extensive. He’s here to give us his report. Sergeant Dignam.
Dignam: Ok. My people are out there. They’re like fuckin’ indians. You’re not gonna see ’em you’re not gonna hear about ’em except from me or Captain Queenan. You will not ever know the identity of undercover people. Unfortunately, this shithole has more fuckin’ leaks than the Iraqi Navy.
Ellerby: Fuck yourself.
Dignam: I’m tired from fuckin’ your wife.
Ellerby: How’s your mother?
Dignam: Good, she’s tired from fuckin’ my father.
Or perhaps another when Billy Costigan, played Leonardo DiCaprio, orders a drink at a bar:
Billy Costigan: [to the bartender] Cranberry juice.
Man Glassed in Bar: It’s a natural diuretic. My girlfriend drinks it when she’s got her period. What, do you got your period?
[Billy grabs an empty glass and smashes it onto the man’s head. Mr. French grabs Billy throws him against the wall. Billy tries to go towards the man again and French holds him against the wall. Billy pushes French’s hands away]
Billy Costigan: Get your fuckin’ hands off me!
Mr. French: [calmly] Hey, hey, hey… do you know me?
Billy Costigan: No, no.
Mr. French: Well, I’m the guy that tells you there are guys you can hit and there’s guys you can’t. Now, that’s not quite a guy you can’t hit, but it’s almost a guy you can’t hit. So I’m gonna make a fuckin’ ruling on this right now. You don’t fuckin’ hit him. You understand?
Billy Costigan: Yeah, excellent. Fine, fine, fine.
Mr. French: I fucking know you. I know your family. You make one more drug deal with that idiot fucking cop-magnet of a cousin of yours and I’ll forget your grandmother was so nice to me. I’ll cut your fucking nuts off. You understand that?
Billy Costigan: Yeah, yeah, I do.
Mr. French: What are you drinkin’?
Billy Costigan: [embarrassed] A cranberry juice.
Mr. French: What is it, your period?
These scenes are probably easy bait in terms of showing the character of the film, but when I was a teenage boy the free use of “fucks” and the constant violence of the film was something deeply fascinating. Part of it was probably because I grew up with a working class father who would regail me with stories about the violence of the Rugby pitch, and the irreverent songs that would accompany a game. Listening to dad I developed early an appreciation for vulgar language and considered a point of pride when I developed my own limerick about the woman named “Runt.” Language and violence were the means of expression, as I understood them, or working class men. Men who, it should be noted, I wanted to be and wasn’t.
They were also men I wanted to fuck, but that’s for another essay.
The Departed was a film about men acting and being themselves, and the darkness implied by all of this violence was lost on me, to some extent. Being a kid who loved Stephen King, being the kid who loved Heavy Metal, and being the kid who memorized every scene and line in almost every Scorsese and Tarantino movie, I’ve recognized more and more that the darkness of those films was it’s own sort of therapy. It’s a pathetic aphorism, but young men don’t know who they are, they don’t know what they want, and they don’t understand how to really find what identifies them. And because of all that constant shifting of identity and confusion, it’s not uncommon for young men to find solace in spiritual, intellectual, and philosophical darkness.
I gravitated to gangsters, murderers, and sociopaths in movies not because I wanted to be them, but because in their stories I found some kind of emotional solace. My world, really my brain, was trying to manage my personal darkness, and the only way to really handle it was to watch movies about sociopaths who stabbed people to death with pens, or, in the case of The Departed, asked people which hand they jerked off with before cutting off the other hand.
At this point though my reader is probably wondering where this is going. Allright, they say, you’ve told us ad nauseam about the fact that you were bummed out as a teenager and so you became an edge lord. Big fucking whooped-dee-doo, why should I care? What relevance does your depression have to do with The Departed?
This is a fair question and it actually gets me back on track. You see the other day I had another spell of my depression and it became so unendurable that I had to take a day off from writing. I spent most of the morning cleaning around the house, trying not to think about blaming myself for something stupid I’d done and in an effort to channel Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks (“Once a day, everyday, give yourself a present”) I decided to go grab some Taco Bueno and watch a movie I hadn’t watched in ages. The Departed was on my shelf when I came home and I watched it, reciting most of the lines from memory, but by the end of the film I realized that I had missed something.
The Departed is a film that explores the violence and vulgarity of criminals, but it also, like every Martin Scorsese film, explores identity and how young men create it.
The first lines of the film lay this concept out plainly as it opens to two men fighting in the streets, and Frank Costello begins:
Frank Costello: I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.
Right from the start Scorsese sets the expectation of the audience and the character of the film. Frank Costello is a man who knows who and what he is, and as he narrates his philosophy of life the reader becomes more and more aware of his individual philosophy concerning what is and isn’t one’s sense of self:
Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying, we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this: no one gives it to you. You have to take it.
Scorsese opens his film with the steady integration of races showing how the lower classes of Boston handled the push, which tended to be violent, and as he narrates he focuses on his identity of being Irish has impacted his views. Scorsese is effective in opening Frank as a man composed of darkness (Nicholson is literally hidden in shadow for the first five to ten minutes of the film) who can only see violence as a means of advancing anywhere culturally.
The idea of identity isn’t just a minor opening idea however, it’s a question and concept that’s repeated througout the film as the central conflict lies in the two protagonists William Costigan and Colin Sullivan, two “rats.” Sullivan works for the Boston State Police Department but is a rat for Costello, and the other, Billy Costigan working for Costello, but really working as an undercover officer for the Boston State Police Department. Scorsese plays these two men as a sort of duality, each trying to figure out who they are and what it is that they actually want. Costigan, played by deCaprio, has an early interaction with the head of Special Investigative Services and one scene only further’s this question of what identity actually is:
Oliver Queenan: [during Costigan’s interview] We have a question: Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop? It’s an honest question. A lot of guys just want to appear to be cops. Gun, badge, pretend they’re on TV.
Dignam: Yeah, a lot of people just wanna slam a nigger’s head through a plate-glass window.
Billy Costigan: I’m all set without your own personal job application. Alright, Sergeant?
Dignam: What the fuck did you say to me, trainee?
Billy Costigan: [to Queenan] With all due respect, sir, what do you want from me?
Dignam: Hey asshole, he can’t help you! I know what you are, okay? I know what you are and I know what you are not. I’m the best friend you have on the face of this earth, and I’m gonna help you understand something, you punk. You’re no fuckin’ cop!
There really isn’t a quote which feels so dramatically powerful to me than this one. This is largely because of it’s applicability to almost any situation in life. I’m a realist, and often that translates to a poor worldview concerning humanity that borders on cynicism, but I don’t believe I’m too far off the mark when I observe that most people in this life aspire to be something. Often it’s not even the identity that matters so much as the societal benefits and advantages. Looking at myself I wanted to be a rock star. I would listen to Appetite for Destruction over and over again, I’d listen to all of my Slipknot records, and for two years after High School I made plans to “go up to Dallas” and become a musician. What’s important about this story is that in that time I never learned how to play a musical instrument, I never got a job working in a music store, and I never took the initiative to leave my parents house and join a band.
The reason was, I didn’t want to be a rock star, I wanted to appear to be a rock star. A lot of people do. They want to smash their guitars, date supermodels and porn stars, throw tvs out windows, and just generally not give a shit.
The Departed is a film about identity and how young men create it for themselves, and who are the icons of masculinity that help them establish that modicum of masculinity. For Sullivan it’s Costello, for Costigan it’s father first, and then eventually Captain Oliver Queenan. The reader follows these two men as they try to be something they are, and aren’t, for entirely different reasons. Sullivan wants to appear to be a cop so that he can enjoy the societal and monetary perks that comes with being a corrupt cop, for Costigan wants to work alongside criminals bearing witness to atrocity after atrocity because he wants to help his community and his environment. And in each of these men’s struggle there is something relevant and human.
In a scene about halfway through the film Costigan meets with Dignam and Queenan beneath a bridge and there’s a brief exchange:
Billy 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?
It’s easy sometimes to lose who you are in this impersonal modern world. It’s easy to pretend like you didn’t hear someone mutter the n-word when a black person walks onto the subway. It’s easy to pretend that it doesn’t bother or offend you when somebody slaps a confederate flag on the back of their truck. It’s easy to smile and nod at work when a customer tells you that ever since the fags started getting married that the country’s values are imploding. It’s easy to say that you’re going to be a rockstar when your fourteen because you’ve never lived outside your parents house. And a million minor abuses and challenges of integrity are expected in this life because ultimately because in this impersonal modern age integrity is not always observed as a virtue.
Life, unfortunately is often about compromises, and far too often about disappointments. My rock star fantasies ended up in the crapper as my parents finally had to confront me and tell me that I could either go to school or get a job, I chose the former and it was one of the best choices I could ever make. I met my wife, I came to terms with my pansexuality, and I made friends that have impacted my life in ways I can’t even begin to imagine. It was a moment of compromise that lead me to my current station in life, but it was also a moment of integrity. I knew I couldn’t just get a job and start floating through life, that wasn’t me. I knew who I was and what I was was an academic pussy, and a writer.
Identity isn’t something that comes without sacrifice, pain, and honesty. William Costigan was a man who came from privilege, and by the end of the film he’s helped bring down a man who’s plagued the working class neighborhoods of Boston, while Sullivan has plundered and gained at the expense of good people who are trying to make their world better. Scorsese is able to make a relevant comment about what identity is in the Information Age, which is often not what it at first appears. Many people have to pretend to be something else either because they’re tired, because they’re afraid of other people’s opinion, because they want to be something they’re not, or perhaps they’re lying to get something out of this world because that want to be something else.
The Departed offers up to the reader the idea that life is about choices, and that ultimately beneath all the clutter and data of “who you are.” Put another way, the only real determining factor of identity is what you actually do. A rat is a rat, but the rat who steals the cheese, rather than waiting for it to fall from the plate are two entirely different creatures.
All quotes from The Departed were provided by IMDB.com
I’ve provided a few links to reviews about The Departed in case the reader would like a bit of outside perspective instead of my non-stop introspective nonsense. Enjoy: