MOTW: Damon, DiCaprio, and Double Lives: Dual Protagonists in the "The Departed"

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
April 19th, 2013

MOTW: Damon, DiCaprio, and Double Lives: Dual Protagonists in the "The Departed"

-- Through criminal exploits and false bonds, "The Departed" explores duality and the unceasing consequences faced by people who practice it. The movie's two lead protagonists embody the concept of duality, acting as character foils in their reactions to similar scenarios. While they share some of the same childhood influences, subtle environmental differences propel each character's choices and tragic downfall.

The film is about the lives of two Bostonian Irishmen, both of whom pursue careers as state police. Matt Damon's character, Colin Sullivan, seems like the typical hardworking man and do-gooder. He sails through police training, plays football with his colleagues, and quickly rises to a lead position in a special unit that handles organized crime cases. However, Sullivan is merely a mole and was recruited as a child by the local mob boss he's now tasked with investigating. Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Billy Costigan, has troubles in his past and a family history of criminal activity. He initially excels at the police academy but finds himself deterred from moving forward by two state police looking to recruit him. Much like Sullivan, Costigan becomes a mole in the crime syndicate helmed by mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).

The film was directed by Martin Scorsese and, like many of his works, is about corrupt and unhinged people who behave in ways that are both unsettling and entertaining. The lengthy opening sequence cleverly sets up the polarity of Sullivan and Costigan's situations. Sullivan grew up in the community controlled by Costello but was raised by his grandmother and maintains the air of an honorable citizen. Costigan also comes from a broken family, living with his mother in a middle-class setting and visiting his criminal father in a neighborhood overrun with corruption.

When Sullivan is accepted into the organized crime unit, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) note his impressive track record and sound work ethic. On the other hand, Costigan is approached aggressively by the same men, who pick apart his family's criminal involvement and question his motives for joining the police force. However, the viewer quickly learns that it's Costigan's marked intelligence that causes these two men to deem him unsuitable for the force, not his background. To Queenan and Dignam, Costigan represents the perfect balance of cop and criminal. His family is already connected to Costello, and Costigan clearly has the mental dexterity to infiltrate the crime ring without revealing his true identity. At one point, Dignam correctly accuses him of using two different accents around his mother and father. The exchange shows that Costigan's dualistic nature surfaced at a young age.

Sullivan is equally dualistic, but his fraudulent behavior is conditioned. He is groomed to be a plant and copes with conflicting loyalties while struggling to take control of his own identity. In an early scene, Costello buys groceries for Sullivan and his grandmother, establishing a father-son relationship that gradually becomes burdensome to Sullivan. Despite being one of Costello's most valuable cohorts, Sullivan is trapped in a shaky servitude and is often threatened by the same man who serves as a mentor figure.

In fact, the movie's ending reveals how tenuous their connection is. Costello is initially suspicious of Costigan but quickly brings him into the fold and forms a similar father-son relationship with the police mole. Sullivan is an insider handpicked by Costello but never truly earns his trust. Costello teaches Sullivan skills that make the false cop a threat as he grows more independent. Costigan, on the other hand, is seen as a loyal foot soldier because he cleverly downplays his intelligence and manipulative abilities.

The idea of owning personal identity is a major theme in "The Departed." Sullivan falls in love and dreams of a different career. He realizes he must neutralize Costello in order to claim that fantasy life and destroy evidence of his past. Costigan's identity is owned by Queenan and Dignam. His real identity is replaced with his criminal persona, and the two officers are the only people who can verify his undercover assignment. Both Sullivan and Costigan are physically affected by their deceptive lifestyles. Sullivan begins to suffer from impotence, and Costigan becomes paranoid, insomniac, and mildly dependent on prescription drugs. Queenan provides a stabilizing influence for Costigan that Sullivan never receives.

Another notable presence is Sullivan's girlfriend, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), who is also Costigan's psychiatrist. Both men form sexual relationships with Madolyn, but neither can be entirely truthful with her. Sullivan exhibits an arrogance and abrasive confidence that somehow attracts others, but as a psychiatrist, Madolyn slowly sees traces of what lies behind the fa├žade. In contrast, Costigan challenges her mentally and reveals glimpses of the emotional strain he suffers from. The strong connection between Costigan and Madolyn reminds the viewer of the kind of man he is underneath the criminal intrigue. While they outwardly seem to come from different worlds, Costigan is brilliant and virtuous and would realistically be the suitable match for Madolyn.

During Costigan's interview at the start of the film, Queenan asks whether he wants to be in law enforcement or simply appear to be. This theme develops alongside the dual protagonists, who try to abandon their false identities and reclaim their real ones. In both cases, those attempts end tragically, leaving the audience with an important question: Is identity self-imposed or determined by the perceptions of others?