C.Neil Davenport | The Departed
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Jan 06 2016

The Departed

The Departed (2006)

Neil Davenport

Inside a dusky garage, the young Colin Sullivan, who is later played by Matt Damon, is told by the mass murdering father figure, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholas), “In church they tell you, ‘you can become a cop or a criminal,’ but what I ask is ‘when you are faced with a loaded gun, what’s the difference?’” This theme of Martin Scorsese’s film, The Departed (2006) is all about the establishment of identity. Though the theme is projected as question towards Sullivan to convert him into a rat within the police department, it is advertently asking us the same question, “how do I identify myself within my environment?” So in order to understand the theme we have to figure out what type of film this is.

The logline on IMDB for The Departed (2006) says it is about an “undercover cop and a mole [with]in the police attempt[ing] to identify each other while infiltrating an Irish gang in South Boston.” This logline is on point of describing what the story is about! So now let’s push the bullet further into the wound. Let’s talk about genre. Genre is simply an artistic composition of how the story is told and this film is a mentored story of institutionalization. Down to its bones, an institutionalized story is about an individual, established within a specific group who starts to question the morality of his/her actions within it. The individual or the protagonist (in film terms) is Billy the undercover cop, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

According to Blake Snyder’s novel Save the Cat, there are three elements that arrange an institutionalized film. First there must be an established Group. It can be a gang, a corporate office or a family. Second there is ‘the Brando,’ (the protagonist) who questions the morality of the group and lastly, there is a Sacrifice the Brando makes by either joining the group in relinquishing his/her identity or destroying the group to rejuvenate his/her identity which most times results with a death or suicide.

In order to find the first element; The Group, we need to know who the protagonist is. This is who the story is really about and who we, the audience, are supposed to cheer for. Just off the bat know that it is not Sullivan or Costello. Our protagonist is Billy. From a story structure standpoint, Billy has the most growth.

So now we have to ask ourselves, ‘why is The Brando questioning The Group?’ or in this case, ‘why is Billy questioning the police department?’ At first the police department in Billy’s perspective was moral and sensible, until he sat across Costello during lunch and saw him twist a wedding ring off of a severed hand as Costello ate a lobster. This was the moment Billy realized if Costello found out he was an undercover cop, he would surely die. After this scene, Billy yanks off his wire, throws it in the pool and starts questioning his loyalty to his occupation. His primal desire is survival and wants nothing but to leave the group he works for!

To start us off, J.J. Abrams is an exceptional director. Like Star Wars, Star Trek is another franchise I could care less about, however when Mr. Abrams went up to the plate with Star Trek, it became one of my favorite films. It was properly told through a solid structure of storytelling, the acting was modern and the style was though fictional, felt realistic. Maybe it has to do with the advancement in CGI, or the improvement of acting, still unsure. Although what I do know is without the director’s vision, the film would tell a completely different story through the audience’s perspective.

We know our Brando is Billy and not Sullivan or Costello. We have sympathy for Sullivan due to his ignorance of looking up to a criminal as a father figure, but Billy is our guy because he is not corrupt where Costello is. Here is what we know. Billy is not a narcissistic, womanizer like Sullivan in addition he cares about life. He stayed beside his mother until she died, he gets emotional when he sees a family photograph of a criminal he just killed, and when it comes to Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), Billy’s councilor and lover, who was also the girlfriend of Sullivan, he hangs up her childhood photograph on the wall whereas Sullivan puts away in a box after she moves into his apartment. We like Billy and what makes him our Brando; our hero is his significate character growth which ties up the final element of recognizing an institutionalized story.

The Sacrifice our hero makes either by joining the group or destroying it is seen here. In the finale after Costello dies and the job is allegedly done, Billy is waiting in Sullivan’s office for his pay check; his identity as a person of society. Remember, Billy’s primal goal is to survive and to get out of the police department. I mean, who can blame him after all he had been through! But this is the moment where we recognize that this story is about finding one’s identity within an environment. When Sullivan walks out of his office leaving Billy alone to retrieve his check, Billy sees the white envelope with the word “citizens,” written on it with black sharpie on Sullivan’s desk. This is the moment where The Sacrifice is made by our hero. Billy now knows without a doubt that Sullivan is the mole and inherently the reason for all of the distress within the police department. This pushes Billy to walk out of Sullivan’s office with no check in hand and the identity established as a police officer is born. Billy sacrificed his identity as a person of society, the thing he wanted most and becomes a part of The Group he once questioned because what is most important to him was bring Sullivan to justice!

The theme stated of finding one’s identity within one’s environment, Billy took control, learned who he was and brought the mole enviably to justice. The theme of The Departed (2006): “In church they tell you, ‘you can become a cop or a criminal,’ but what I wonder is ‘when you are faced with a loaded gun, what’s the difference?’” So, how do your identity yourself in your environment?
Other films that present the same theme are Wall Street, Dead Poet’s Society, and The Devil Wears Prada.


IMDB – The Departed


Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.

Blake Snyder – M. Wiese Productions – 2005.


The Departed. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Prod. Brad Pitt, Brad Grey, and Graham King. By William Monahan. Perf. Leonardo DiCapro, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson.


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