The Departed: Good cop vs. bad cop

Martin Scorsese is known for his outrageous, gangster-mobbing characters. His films are more character and dialogue driven than plot driven. In The Departed we are introduced to a wide spectrum of characters struggling with self-identity and running into obstacles in order to find their place in the out of control, rural areas of Boston. Throughout the entire film no one is to be trusted, not even the Massachusetts State Police. Frank Costello, Billy Costigan, and Colin Sullivan are all unreliable narrators and have many problems of their own. Even the psychiatrist Madolyn who is supposed to be the all-trusting character in the film cheats on her boyfriend Colin Sullivan with his unknowing rival Billy Costigan and is later pregnant with Costigan’s baby. They are all rats and no one knows what the truth is.

In this “cops and mobsters” film two spies are attempting to discover each other’s identities. It’s like a never-ending circle because in some way the two are working toward the same goal, but are counteracting the other’s next step. They both struggle with their royalties to the mob and to the police department. Even though Sullivan is Costello’s mole in the Massachusetts State Police and has to act like he stands by the law, in a way his acting almost seems real. He shows a genuine respect for the institution, especially when he tells Costigan that he will recommend his for the Medal of Merit. Costigan on the other hand lacks the respect that Sullivan shows even though he is an actual cop. At one point in the film when he has become disillusioned with the institution he says, “there is no one more full of shit than a cop.” Working as a mobster for Costello brings fear and anxiety into his life, resulting in an addition to prescribed and illegal drugs.  His mental breakdowns and unsteadiness makes him the opposite of what we think a cop is truly like. We see Costigan struggle with violence and the law, making him the film’s anti-hero.

In the climax of the film, Sullivan and Costigan come face-to-face on the rooftop of the building that Capt. Queenan was thrown off of. In this scene we see the two rats truly conform to their secret identities. Costigan who became a member of Costello’s mob as an undercover cop loses control of his morally duties when he finds out that Sullivan is a secret mole that Costello planted into the Massachusetts State Police. On the roof Costigan attacks Sullivan and arrests him. Sullivan tells Costigan that he was never a cop and that he doesn’t exist because he erased him from the police database. The conflict is interrupted when Officer Brown shows up. Costigan tries to explain the situation, but Brown does not respond to his justifications. Costigan then drags Sullivan to the elevator while holding a gun to his head and repeatedly saying “you know who I am.”

The elevator scene is the most important scene of the film. It wraps up the storylines and explains the film’s theme of lost identity in the simplest of ways. Here we see the two men almost switch identities. Costigan is acting like a true mobster, relentless and wanting recognition, while Sullivan is a beaten up victim struggling against his predator for his life.  At first Sullivan is resilient and says to Costigan, “I can’t wait to see you explain this one to a fucking Suffolk County jury you fucking cocksucker. This is gonna be fucking fun!” He then looks up at the elevator numbers moving down as if he is about to fall to his death. His expression goes numb and he is breathing heavily. “Just fucking kill me,” he says. Costigan responds by saying, “I am killing you,” and is instantly shot by Officer Barrigan when the elevator opens. Barrigan also shoots Brown and reveals to Sullivan that Costello had more than one mole in the police. He tells him that they need to take care of each other because Costello was going to sell them to the FBI. Sullivan grabs Costigan’s gun and shoots Barringan in the head later identifying him as the mole at the police headquarters.

The way Scorsese uses simple dialogue to reveal important messages makes this elevator scene such an epic scene. It’s not about where the characters are or what they are doing, but what they are saying and how they are saying it that makes the film so great. Sullivan is contradicting when he says to Costigan on the roof that he needs to calm down and act professional. Right before this scene, Sullivan is the one freaking out about his identity being blown and out of everyone in the police department he is the one acting unprofessional throughout the entire film. Then in the elevator he says that Costigan will never get away with this, but later gives him the Medal of Merit at his funeral. Costigan on the other hand is uneasy and unstable throughout most of the film. He battles between his true identity as an undercover cop and a top member of Costello’s mob. He can barely stand the sight of watching someone get shot, let alone holding a gun, but in the rooftop scene he has no problem whatsoever holding a gun to Sullivan’s head and beating him up with one. His undercover identity takes ahold of his true identity when he knows he has been crossed and his behavior is similar to that of Costello’s unruly behavior.

In the final sequence of the film, Sullivan steps out of the elevator of his apartment, walks down the hall, and looks around suspiciously. When he enters his apartment, Sgt. Dignam is standing in hospital foots and gloves with a loaded gun. Sullivan looks at him and with a huge sigh says, “okay” as if he knew this was coming. Dignam shoots him in the head and runs off.  The camera zooms over his dead body, across his floor, and to his balcony where a black rat resides over the ledge. The black rat runs off and the scene ends with a view of his balcony overlooking the city of Boston. Once again Scorsese sticks to simplicity and relevant imagery to conclude the film’s central message.

Written by Cara Seo


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