Scorsese’s The Departed: Duality and Doppelgangers

For nearly five decades, Martin Scorsese has been regarded as one of the most important American filmmakers. Through his deliberate homages to Hollywood history, blended with a deliberate and mature use of adult themes, violence, and gritty realism, his is one of the most unique and widely-praised—and widely copied—voices in modern cinema. But even with that in mind, the director has had his share of “slumps,” wherein his own love of obscure foreign films and personal pet projects outweighed the wider demographic that his crime films usually garner. In 2006, his visionary remake of Chinese masterpiece Infernal Affairs was largely a return to form—and a comeback of sorts, bringing the director his first Oscar and biggest hit in years. Touting an all-star ensemble including Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Mark Wahlberg, Scorsese took the original epic’s tale of two polices officers on opposing sides of the law and reconstructed it into a morality tale on the dark streets of Boston’s underworld. Nearly 15 years later, modern YouTubers reassess Scorsese’s The Departed, and look deeper into its themes and symbolism for the universal nature of good versus evil—and how sometimes, they can be two sides of the same coin. As YouTuber Jack’s Movie Reviews observed, The Departed is, at its core, the story of two men whose desires for identity drive both of their violent fates:

This is a film about desires—and characters wanting more out of life in the hand that they were dealt. In the opening of the film, we are told about what happens to those who did not find a way off the streets: they die. In this area of Boston, the normal trajectory of most people is straight down, so we see our two main characters, Colin Sullivan and Billy Costigan, working hard and doing everything in their power to avoid this downward spiral and rise above it … These two characters have had conflicted paths.

The YouTuber continued, adding that the respective backstories for both Leonard DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan and Matt Damon’s Colin Sullivan demonstrate the root of each character’s yearning for identity—and, in essence, the American Dream. He continued:

Colin’s mother and father died when he was young and Billy grew up in a broken home with heavy mob ties, who also lost both his parents … When Colin was young, he was looking for an ordinary life … Frank [Costello] took him into the mob family and shifted his life off-course even further … He is forced to help out Costello and the rest of the mob or face death … Billy starts off by trying to join the state police … Instead, the only option he has is to try and join the Irish mob and act as a mole inside the organization.

According to commentator Matthew Danczak, director Scorsese slyly merged the concept of “the American Dream” into the actions and unspoken desires of the characters—even in the veiled remarks made by their shared spiritual father, Irish mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) regarding education as the only legitimate way to achieve both status and wealth within the American economy. Costello’s tutelage is displayed multiple times within the film, both in his comments regarding the value of education—and in his “do as I say, not as I do” actions that border on selfishness and individualism. Danczak remarked:

[Billy and Colin] are two symbols of upper-class and lower-class in the film in the form of rats … [Costello] even combines the two in a drawing in a scene before meeting Billy to ask him if he’s ‘the rat’—and we seen these two motifs together in the final shot: the Beacon gold tower is a symbol of status. And how do you get status? Identity is one of the main players Irish racist gangster Francis ‘Frank’ Costello is obsessed with … Costello’s ideology is based on two factors: the significance of schooling and selfishness … Being a nonconformist and a man going his own way is the only path to walk for Costello.

Danczak observed that Scorsese’s hidden commentary on the values of both traditional school education and the necessity of “street smarts”—a theme that dates all the way to the director’s mainstream debut, Mean Streets, in 1973—is a theme that is uniquely American, as even the original Chinese version of the tale, Infernal Affairs, omitted the thematic subplot, eschewing such dialogue for further action sequences. The YouTuber continued:

How Costello fathers his ‘kids’ by stressing schooling, because there’s a link between education and intelligence, and how upbringing shapes them both—a theme not present in the original version of the story, Infernal Affairs … Billy did not graduate the police academy, but Colin did, and he’s obsessed with this job and his job progress; he’s a prodigy of Costello.

But as this is truly presented in the voice of director Martin Scorsese, the themes of father/son relationships and the two lead characters’ dual quests for identity are not the only elements that drive the core of The Departed. As Scorsese is widely recognized as the American master of the crime film, with this epic he also chose to offer additional commentary to his recurring studies of crime and its effects within society—a thesis that carried previous masterpieces Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino and, later, The Irishman. YouTuber Jack’s Movie reviews addressed this new version of Scorsese’s recurrent fascination with crime, saying:

Once [Billy] infiltrates the mob, he starts having to do horrible deeds, making us ask the question, ‘Is it okay to do bad things if those bad things result in a better world?’ … In the end, this movie has an age-old message that “crime doesn’t pay.” However, it also extends beyond that, saying that not only does crime not pay, but that crime hurts—crime hurts the people around it, and will impact everybody … This message seems to contradict a lot of the messages of Scorsese’s other movies in the past, most notably Goodfellas.

The Departed famously ends, like Hamlet, with nearly all the principal characters dead. According to YouTuber Cinema Summery, this is the true genius in elevating the film from common crime story to genuine American tragedy—leaving only one character, that of Mark Wahlberg’s Sergeant Dignam, standing, symbolically, to apparently bring wraith and judgment to Sullivan at the story’s end. They observed:

So, that ending was a little abrupt, kind of came out of nowhere, and was very ambiguous; you can interpret it in one of two ways: you can interpret it as Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) being another one of Frank’s moles who was ‘cleaning house’ and tying up loose ends in order to cover his own butt—which makes sense since Trooper Barrigan does say, ‘What, you thought you were the only mole in the police force?’ So, there’s some evidence to back-up this interpretation. But there’s a more simple explanation and that is Former Sergeant Dignam avenging the deaths of Captain Queenan and, of course, Billy Costigan, after he found out that Colin was the mole.

In a final stroke of Scorsese’s storytelling acumen, The Departed reveals its many layers with one final, brilliant image: that of a rat crossing a windowsill, the Boston Capitol building in the background—reminding the audience that even in such an elevated status as a luxury apartment in the heart of the city’s governing district, agents of secrecy and deception can thrive. The commentators at Cinema Summery concluded:

That last shot of the rat on the windowsill is a little reference to the fact that wherever you go in this movie, there’s always going to be someone keeping secrets and telling lies, like police and criminals and men and women.