[Note: the following criticism contains many spoilers.]
Having seen The Departed again over the weekend, some of my initial criticisms of the film (summarized in this post) came into focus. It wasn't until this second viewing that I really noticed two general things: 1) that the film is more character-oriented than I initially thought, and 2) Leonard DiCaprio's performance is not only incredibly passionate and subtle, but the heart of the movie. I recall an interview with Martin Scorsese in which he explained that the reason DiCaprio is such a good actor is because of how expressive his eyes are. Though I don't have a problem with DiCaprio, he's never been in the upper echelon of film actors. Now I'm beginning to understand what Scorsese was trying to say after studying DiCaprio's emotional performance in The Departed. His character, Billy Costigan, seems to be on the verge of a breakdown throughout the whole film. Interestingly, there are clues to his demise throughout not only in the structure of the film but in the expressiveness of his eyes. In that sense, the film essentially depicts his tragedy. The deeper he goes into his false identity, the more he is giving himself over to death. His performance suggests the character's acknowledgement of that on some level.
I think the film's real climax and emotional center is midway throgh, when Costigan visits the psychiatrist for the first time. This scene has strong tragic undertones (with beautiful music by Howard Shore) as Costigan tells his "still hand" story, which is intercut with his encounter with the only two police officers who know he's a cop. In moments of utter vulnerability, Costigan still isn't telling the truth, signifying his inability to escape from the persona he now embodies and inevitable demise. Nevertheless, the images depict Costigan in a moral crisis as he witnesses one of Costello's men kill a man without blinking. Costigan is incapacitated, paralyzed from doing anything. The first time I saw the film, I recognized its themes of identity and how individuals come to embody it as well, but I thought they were overpowered by the somewhat intrusive plot. This time, however, I saw more nuance to the character relations and more going on in the performances. Every major character in the film does things against her or his better judgement. We see characters with ideas, dreams, and aspirations, all with a vision of how the world works and how they can contribute to it and get something out of it. Sullivan (Matt Damon) stares at the golden rotunda and Costigan wants to shed the image of his family name and bring justice to gansters. But eventually they make moral compromises and suddenly the world isn't so black and white. Cops and gangsters aren't so different after all.
But what is it that makes one person a cop and one person a gangster? It's amazing to consider how all of us are defined by our surroundings, not by what we think are the seemingly free choices we make in our lines of work, circles of friends, areas of study. To think that we have an underlying identity informing those choices and that we truly know ourselves apart from our conext is the great mistake many of us make. But the greater mistake is to really believe that there is something behind those choices and those surroundings that reflect who you are, when in fact it's often pure chance. By refusing to examine the relationship of the mob and the police or the struggle of good versus evil and instead focusing on two characters engaged in both sides, the film is actually examining the choices (and the impulses that drive them) which lead one to allign him or herself with a side and, more importantly, really believe in that side or order.
The film is about the death of idealism. The two main characters are dreamers who make a symbolic journey within both the "good" and the "bad" side. Their journeys, identity crises, and choices to work within those systems expose the inconsequentiality of such terms. When Costigan is suddenly killed not in the heat of battle or in a climactic showdown but in the most surprising of circumstances, the film's themes come together. Corruption rules both the "good" and "bad" sides of the spectrum. The only way to survive within that system is to compromise one's moral identity and make decisions she or he knows isn't right. People must to do this to survive, no matter what lifestyles in which they are involved. Eventually, morality and ethics disappear when one becomes more comfortable with making choices that compromise morality. Eventually, the guilt is gone and killing a man is nothing more than pulling a trigger. 70-year-old mob leader Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) represents a man who may have been in the position of either Sullivan or Costigan earlier in his life, made those compromises, and entered into the politics of corruption and knows how to work within it and achieve success. In that sense he is fascinating, almost humorous. Like many of Scorsese's films containing violence, this film isn't about the violence so much as it is a deep examination into the souls and minds of violent people. And a close look at these three characters shows how different, yet inevitably connected they are.
The film spends its time building a blatantly symbolic narrative about duality, leading the viewer to think there will be an ultimate showdown at the end, either physical or emotional. And then out of nowhere the desire for closure is suddenly shot dead, quite literally. This initially bugged me, but now I think I understand why it bothered me and how it relates to the themes of the narrative, which are deeper than I originally thought. Costello is merely a survivor, one who has chosen to kill rather than be killed. The police/mob model of the film is rather arbitrary. To be in his position of power and to survive within that system is suppress moral justice and embrace the corruption that defines every aspect of lived life in our political economy of capitalism and consumerism. The film seems to be arguing that it doesn't matter "whose side you're on," because the only difference between them are the empty images of good and evil behind them, which are just archetypical representations in place to sustain a more innoncent and morally just vision of the world which doesn't exist. We would all like to believe in them - many of us do - which is partly why they exist. But the film's major thesis is that the only "real" world is one of power and corruption. Whose side you happen to be on is not the result of your moral choices but rather more decided by chance; being in a specific situation and possessing a limited number of choices upon which to decide. And when it comes to survival, morality doesn't enter into the logic of making those choices. Suddenly the vision of a morality and justice slips away and, like Nicholson's Costello, we engage and build a much different world than the one into which we thought we were born.