Martin Scorsese's hotly tipped Oscar fave, The Departed, plumbs the depths of the psychological and sociological motives of violence, loyalty, and duty.
I was a sophomore in high school when they found the bodies. Growing up in Dorchester, a neighborhood in the city which shared both a working-class Irish tradition and a blurry border with South Boston, I had often heard the stories about Whitey Bulger and the Winter Hill gang, but to me that was all in the past.
I was 16-years-old at the end of 1999; far too young to have experienced the troubles the city had endured in the '70s and '80s, with only faint memories of Charles Stuart’s dive off the Tobin Bridge and second-hand rumors of the mob’s existence. The whispers were there, about the murders, the political corruption, about the classmate of mine whose father was connected, but they seemed distant and intangible. That is, until they found the bodies.
John McIntyre, Deborah Hussey, and Arthur Barrett were exhumed from beneath the parking lot across from Florian Hall in Dorchester, a place my cousins and I had often chased each other through playing tag, not knowing that it was mob dumping ground. Paul McGonagle had been buried at the edge of Tenean Beach, not far from the playground my parents would take me to as a child. Finally, my classmate’s father, Kevin Weeks, showed up on the front page of the Boston Herald, indicted for racketeering. He was the one leading the police to the gravesites. Suddenly, the history had caught up to me, and the very geography in which I had been so familiar with was transformed, layers of meaning and complicity revealed that had previously been invisible.
And yet, though the traces of violence and terror surrounded me, I had never experienced it myself. I had lived with the cognitive dissonance, loving my neighborhood and my city while not understanding why some of my friends were wary of picking me up from my house, or laughing at the tentative questions from suburban kids who’d been spooked by the headlines and assumed I must’ve been tainted in some way by the pall cast over everything. Watching The Departed, I can’t help but feel the dissonance stirred in me again, as I try to reconcile the truth of the blood and the violence with my own truth; never having witnessed a criminal act, never having seen a gun not on a policeman’s hip, and yet being a part of that broader history that I struggle to understand.
Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (of Dorchester, himself) have carefully crafted a film which transcends the label of gangster movie, and instead plumbs the depths of the psychological and sociological motives of violence, loyalty, and duty which are prime movers of the Boston Irish characters. The Departed approaches its subjects from a Freudian perspective, referencing him both explicitly and implicitly, with the subtle aspersions linking Costello’s violent temperament and Sullivan’s desperate duplicity with their almost certain sexual impotence, and in the way the film depicts the immense power that Sullivan and Costigan’s paternal experiences have had over their lives. Perhaps more importantly, a facet which may have slipped beneath the radar of someone not of a Boston Irish heritage, the film also identifies the struggle to define one’s identity, not merely in the DiCaprio/Damon tango which drives the film, but in the ways those characters have made efforts to climb the class ladder and move beyond their humble roots, yet can never free themselves from the emotional connection to South Boston.
DiCaprio’s character utters the thesis of the film early on, echoing another Massachusetts native, Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Families are always rising and falling in America.”
That one line captures the essence of The Departed, pushing beyond the gangster mentality and into the larger Irish-American experience which still thinks back to the hardships endured by the brave immigrant settlers. These memories can inspire progress, but in some ways are binding ties which must be shaken loose. South Boston itself is a family, and The Departed depicts the fits and starts of that family as it fights against itself and for itself.
Costigan is excoriated by Staff Sgt. Dignam (played by another Dorchester native, Mark Wahlberg) early in the film as "lace curtain Irish". The officer viciously chides him for the double-life he lived as a child spending the week in the suburbs with a wealthy step-father while posing in the Southie projects on the weekends.
It’s helpful exposition infused with plenty of local color, but not something Costigan needs to hear. He resents himself for it already, for the opportunities afforded to him that his own father, an airport worker, could never have enjoyed. He negates these opportunities, undercuts his abilities, and without any motivation for personal fulfillment instead settles on a life as a public servant, as a Massachusetts State Trooper.
Sullivan, on the other hand, takes great pains to mask his Southie upbringing, moving into a swank condo in Beacon Hill overlooking the State House and keeping it free of any reminder of his difficult childhood. The look in Damon’s eyes as he views the tremendous Golden Dome out his window is pitch-perfect. Though he views it wordlessly, there’s no doubt that he feels he has finally arrived and made good on the hopes of his immigrant forbearers and his late janitor father. It’s a powerful, if fleeting, glimpse into the character and indeed into the psyche of a people. He’s attempting to rise while Costigan strives to fall, and it is in the middle where they meet and clash, two Southie boys looking for each other and unable to find themselves.
Monahan infuses the tense, thrilling story with a modicum of dark humor that some may have found incongruous, but is typically and gloriously Irish. The works of Joyce and Beckett, while serious and replete with high-minded themes, were not devoid of humor, and the sick, ironic confluence of sorrow and laughter is a hallmark of the Irish experience that demonstrates that this film is true to its subject. Both Wahlberg’s Dignam and Alec Baldwin’s Ellerby act as comic relief, but they are by no means fools. The actors are portraying real characters. They play important roles in the plot, and yet can digress into levity without undermining their credibility. The much maligned rat which creeps across Colin Sullivan’s balcony railing is a necessary coda to the action, a punctuation mark that elicits a grin or a laugh and diffuses the heaviness that would otherwise weigh down oppressively on the audience and crush the blooming brilliance of The Departed.
The two-disc special edition DVD includes a treasure trove of features that will satisfy those looking to extend their stay in Southie, both Scorsese’s fictionalized version and the real life neighborhood. A 20-minute companion documentary, The Story of the Boston Mob: The Real Life Gangster Behind Jack Nicholson’s Character takes viewers deep into South Boston, featuring interviews with the director, screenwriter, and actors, as well as experts on the real case and actual Southie residents, including former Whitey Bulger lieutenant Kevin Weeks. It explores the neighborhood in detail, from the Old Colony projects to the South Boston Liquor Mart, which served as Bulger’s headquarters.
Bulger’s rise to power in Southie and subsequent involvement with the F.B.I. as an informant demonstrate the man’s larger than life influence which inform Nicholson’s equally grandiose performance. Those doubting the source material will take note of former police detective and Bulger case worker Thomas Duffy’s point that right now, Bulger is the number two individual on the F.B.I’s “Most Wanted” list, second only to Osama Bin Laden. Disc two also contains Scorsese on Scorsese, a feature-length profile of the director produced for Turner Classic Movies, and Crossing Criminal Cultures, which looks at Scorsese’s own youthful experiences growing up in Little Italy in New York, and how his encounters with made men and wiseguys have influenced his work.
The most intriguing extra included in this release, however, is a series of nine deleted scenes with special introductions with Scorsese himself. His opening statement is almost an apology for excising these scenes from the picture, and he takes great pains to explain that what we are seeing aren’t cast-offs or afterthoughts, but sadly orphaned children that were separated from the body of the film only after great soul-searching and consternation. They’re brief flashes of character development, including a heartwarming moment between a young William Costigan played by Billy Pollix, and his father talking to Costello at Southie’s Castle Island. Scorsese seems particularly sad to have parted with this scene, as it contains a killer Nicholson line reading about a trip to Rome: “Nicer wops, no pizza.” While the scene adds to the characters' histories and also highlights the extremity of Southie’s tightly-knit, interconnected community, it doesn’t appear as if it would have fit the pacing of the final film.
If The Departed didn’t have an immediate impact the first time around, it’s not because the film is lacking, but because it is so laden with subtle complexities that it requires multiple attentive viewings. Goodfellas, though superlative, is strictly about the gangster lifestyle, the fast-living, high-rolling, at times sociopathic urges that drove those wiseguys to pursue and consume more of everything until they got so full they choked on their own corpulent greed. Here, Scorsese focuses those drives into Costello, while dwelling on the rich, psychological anguish of the constellation of characters that orbit around him. Their motivations are much more varied, and much more affecting than that of Henry Hill because their genesis in loyalty, family, and personal turmoil rather than simply hedonistic or anti-social desires.
The world of The Departed inspires a substantial investment of sympathy and involvement from the viewer, and in return provides one of the most true-to-life renderings of urban violence, American class structure, and emotional rawness yet seen in film. Though the gunplay and gore that spill throughout the movie are foreign to my personal experience, it is this emotional component that truly grabs me and makes me feel like I am really looking at the city of my childhood, and in a way, it helps me to comprehend that other darker world, which for so long was just a few years -- and a few blocks -- away.