Being a practicing Catholic who is serious about their Faith is not without its pitfalls today. In the past few decades, the Church has been under siege to a degree with accusations, confirmed and alleged, of sexual abuse by priests. You can view it as fair or not (I do not), but priests these days face a great deal of scrutiny, always under suspicion. We like to think that the actions of a few do not represent those of the many. But when the Archdiocese of Boston began being investigated by the Boston Globe in the famous “Spotlight” case, the widespread reporting of priests and other highly placed clergy behaving in inappropriate ways towards children, and the subsequent cover-up, made it seem like all men of the cloth could potentially be sexual deviants. In our hyper-sexualized modern society, people look at anyone who chooses celibacy as abnormal, as though our bedroom habits are what determines most our identity as individuals. The way priests are viewed because of this in the wake of the revelation of that scandal is on the verge of becoming a stereotype, if it has not already become one. It is unfair. Today, like many dioceses around the country, the Archdiocese of Boston has a reporting system for sexual abuse and an open system for bringing these crimes to light. Of course, this is not the focus of The Departed (2006). However, there are plenty of moments in it that reference the Catholic Church in general, and the actions of priests in Boston in general. What I described above is simply subtext that runs through my head while I watch this American tragedy.
Maybe I am making a mountain out of a mole hill with The Departed. Still, Irish mobster Frank Costello’s (Jack Nicholson) opening narration says much on this subject. He gives a short historical treatise so that you understand the place of the Irish in the city. One way he describes his people is by saying that at one time all they had was the Church, which is another way of saying they had each other. It gives you a sense of how insular was, and is, this community. He also makes the claim that it was the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic fraternity, essentially) as basically the inspiration for his criminal organization. Even though Boston is a large metropolitan area, Frank comes from a part of that city where everyone knows each other and it provides fertile recruiting ground for new members of his gang. One of those Frank begins grooming from a young age is Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). As an adult, Colin decides to become a Massachusetts State Trooper, but maintains his ties to Frank’s organization. Another young man from a similar setting who also enters the Massachusetts State Police Academy is Billy Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). The film focuses on these two characters. Colin had a much simpler upbringing, whereas Billy had a wealthier mother, but his dad side came from a more humble background. When Colin graduates from the academy, he is immediately made a state detective. Billy’s graduation is met with a different outcome. He is brought in to meet with Captain Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen), the officer in charge of undercover police, and picks Billy to work for his department. Billy is chosen because he has some violent tendencies in his past, perhaps because of his broken home. In order to become a covert officer he is forced to serve a prison sentence, and his status as Massachusetts State Trooper is officially removed from the service so that he appears an apt potential foot soldier for Frank. At the same time, Colin is put into Captain George Ellerby’s (Alec Baldwin) special task force charged with taking down Frank’s criminal empire. In other words, Colin is uniquely placed to ensure that Frank’s activities continue unchecked. Essentially, we have two rats, a major theme of the film, and their activities slowly move them closer to each other. You see the pressures of having to carry out crimes against Billy’s better judgement and character taking their toll on him. Things are rough for Colin too as he has to keep his activities secret, and it manifests itself in implied impotence with his girlfriend Dr. Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga). Billy also interacts with Madolyn as she is his court appointed mental health professional. When their meeting boils over because of his anger over having to do the things he does in his role as an undercover cop, she decides to transfer him to another therapist. This opens the way for them to have a more personal relationship, and she ends up being more attracted to him because he respects her own humble roots. Things come to a head, though, when Colin is given the mission to find the snitch in the Massachusetts State Police, which is, of course, himself. His bogus investigation leads him to begin monitoring Queenan. Queenan almost leads him to Billy, but Frank’s henchmen catch Queenan without Billy and end up killing the captain. With Queenan dead, Colin learns that Frank is an informant with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Thinking that he might be turned into the FBI, Colin decides to raid Frank’s next drug pick up with information he gets from Billy. Frank dies in this action, and with his job essentially done Billy decides to re-emerge. However, sitting in Colin’s office, Billy spots a piece of paper that confirms for him that Colin is Frank’s informant in the State Police. Frank’s lawyers also turned over all the evidence he had proving Colin’s role to Billy. He decides to make an arrest of Colin, but in the process is shot and killed by other officers in the State Police that were working for Frank. Colin is the only one left standing, but he is murdered in his own apartment by Queenan’s assistant, Staff Sergeant Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg).
This is a rather bloody end to a violent The Departed. Given its subject matter, this is to be expected, and it is in keeping with its R rating. What I find more interesting is something I alluded to in the description of the plot above: the dichotomy between Colin and Billy. When Billy is interviewed by Queenan and Dignam early on, they cannot figure out why a well off, smart kid would want to become a Massachusetts State Trooper. Billy’s response is to quote Nathaniel Hawthorne, talking about how families in America are always rising and falling. That describes Billy and Colin. Colin, too, is pretty smart, knowing on his date with Madolyn that Sigmund Freud said that the Irish were the only people impervious to psycho-analysis. While Colin is seemingly on the rise, and Billy falling, they are essentially mirrors of each other. They even dress in a similar way in certain scenes. Still, the film builds up Billy as the more sympathetic of the two. Where Colin is selfish and seems fine (until the end) with living in the web of lies he weaves, you can see the stress Billy’s activities has on him. You want him to get out of that life. And then he is murdered just as he is on the verge of achieving that goal. I remember seeing this movie in the theaters when it came out and being truly shocked when he is shot, and I get a jolt every time I have seen it since then.
In my opening paragraph to this review of The Departed, I discussed at length the unfairness of how we view priests today despite the sexual abuse scandals. Movies like this do nothing to help this image. There is a scene where Frank sees an older priest in a restaurant and needles him about alleged improprieties. The suggestion is that Frank has intimate knowledge of this deviant behavior. Having lunch with the priest is a nun, and it is implied that Frank had a sexual relationship with her before she entered the religious life. At the same time, he also seems to donate large sums of money to the Church. Either way, it is all sordid, and the film seems to want to say that the Church is as corrupt as anyone else. Has the Catholic Church made some mistakes? Yes, and they will be the first to admit that fact. Pope Francis, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and St. John Paul II have all basically said as much in their own ways. Luckily, though, this is not a major aspect of the film.
Earlier, I called The Departed a tragedy. I stand by that assessment, mainly because of Billy’s death. It is a good movie, but not one for the whole family. It is violent, there is plenty of sexual innuendo, there is a lot of cursing, and a great deal of other adult material. It is also well acted and an interesting story, despite its ending.