Who Goes There?
Ben Parker on The Departed

In Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Willem Dafoe’s Jesus “knows” he is God, but he does not know what this means or how to act on it, saying, “God loves me. I know he loves me. I want him to stop.” When Jesus is preaching to the Galileans, he has only his own person to offer as evidence for his message, but as his stance toward the various Judaean ideologists (Zealots, John the Baptist) shifts, each new proclaimed role seems somehow ill-fitting and troubled. The various modes of describing his mission and his self-understanding on offer from others are only so many temptations and dead ends. On the verge of destroying the Temple by violent uprising, he nervously expresses his doubts: “Lord, I hope this is what you want.” The last temptation itself is the possibility of not being the Christ at all, with the attendant relief from the spiritual demands that had made his identity. Take by contrast the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, where the question asked of Jesus is, “Do you think you’re what they say you are?” (Elsewhere: “You’ve started to believe the things they say of you.”) These can be made into Scorsese questions and folded into Dafoe’s performance quite easily: Do I think that I am what I say I am? Do I believe the things I say of me? How can I find out? What if I am a fraud? Will others find out? How did I come to this particular delusion that is my own life? And what to do now . . . ?

In Scorsese’s movies, the main character is time and again faced with the dilemma, “Why am I what I say I am?” These men go forth to prove their souls without any guarantee. This is not necessarily a matter of deception or even self-deception. It means there is no clear confirmation for how one has decided to be in the world, and that decision is not always one’s own. This resonates across The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, Goodfellas, No Direction Home, Shutter Island, and The Wolf of Wall Street. The “Are you talking to me?” scene in Taxi Driver and the “I could’ve been a contender” recital in Raging Bull are just the most famous versions of this impersonation of the self.

To locate Scorsese’s touch, it’s helpful to look at what he added and modified in his films taken from existing source material. Although his 2006 best picture Oscar winner The Departed is a remake of Infernal Affairs, the 2002 Hong Kong gangster film by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, Scorsese imbued the story with his own recurring narrative and psychological concerns. He did not just change the setting to Boston and add Rolling Stones songs, he also put his own twist on the story, which is about the perils of self-definition and the way our lives fit awkwardly with the person we feel ourselves in some way compelled to be.

Depending on one’s tastes, Infernal Affairs is either a taut cops-and-robbers riff, stacked with as many twists as a Rubik’s Cube, or a heavy-handed melodrama with video-game-like efficiency. Unlike Infernal Affairs’ hero, Yan, played by Tony Leung as a model officer who has given up functional life in straight society to go deep undercover, DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan is not an exemplar of police intrepidity: he is spotted right away by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen), chief of the Special Investigations unit, as not fitting in. Queenan and his subordinate Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) grill Costigan for “pretending to be a cop,” a role he is excluded from since he is marked in the police files as damaged goods, coming from a broken home in South Boston, with community and family ties to the Irish gangsters there. Costigan is exposed as “double kid,” split between North and South Boston, with different accents for each home. His class background makes him like Ray Liotta’s Irish Henry Hill on the margins of the Italian mafia in Goodfellas: he can never really be one of them.

Whereas Infernal Affairs takes seriously the problem of “who is the real me?” only insofar as the central characters are double agents, Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan move this question into the psychological makeup of their hero. His police superiors warn him, “We deal in deception… not self-deception,” turning the obvious themes of the infiltration plot into an impromptu psychological portrait: “Do you wanna be a cop or do you wanna appear to be a cop?” The entire story, we have to understand, is that Billy, in going undercover as a South Boston thug, is only repeating his childhood impersonation act as a “double kid,” and plunging back into the unhappy coordinates of his father’s dead-end life.

The father question is another major addition which imprints it as Scorsese’s, while also placing it in the American patriarchal tradition of The Godfather. Infernal Affairs’ Boss Yan (Eric Tsang) is a little spark plug of menace, in the James Cagney mold. Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello, however, is a decrepit, profane, Mephistophelean creep, who gets the movie’s first lines of dialogue and whose death, rather than the twenty-five minutes of screen time that follow, feels like the film’s real ending. Like The Last Temptation of Christ, The Departed begins with an apparently arbitrary selection of a nonbiological “son.” Whereas Jesus hears voices telling him that he has been chosen, but can’t tell if they belong to God or to the devil, in The Departed Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is marked by Frank when he is about twelve years old, reading comic books at a deli counter, and eventually grows to be Frank’s man inside the State Police. In the end, it is not Billy who takes down Frank, but Sullivan. The climactic scene blurts out its own Oedipal interpretation, as Sullivan cuts off Frank’s plea that he has always been “like a…”: “What, like a son? To you? Is that what this is about? All that murdering and fucking, and no sons?”, before shooting him.

Because Sullivan is undercover in an office across town, all of the Oedipal tensions that culminate in Frank’s death appear to explode from nowhere. We expected Billy, who has to suffer through Frank’s megalomania on a daily basis, to be the one to put a bullet in him. The warning signs can only be telegraphed in the one scene Damon and Nicholson share: Damon contemptuously smirks, “I gotta find myself,” once he is tasked with the Internal Affairs assignment to locate Costello’s mole in the department. Nicholson shoots back derisively, emasculatingly: “You’re telling me, sonny boy.” But we have little real sense of their dynamic. Sullivan’s motivations for shooting Frank are either too tidy (he discovers Frank is an FBI informant and is worried for his own skin) or too messy (a father complex, his own impotence, and the schizophrenia of constant role-playing). Matt Damon is almost never in the same room with Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, or Mark Wahlberg; his scene partner is usually a cell phone. Given this structural asymmetry, his performance, already a marvel of overcompensating corporate masculinity, is all the more remarkable—as the supposedly “good guy” cop, he is despicable, grating, teeming with insecurity. He rids himself of human attachments as so many impingements. When he tells his girlfriend that she has to be the one to leave their relationship, it’s with a mix of cowardice, bluster, and helplessness: “I’m not capable (of walking out). I’m fucking Irish, I’ll deal with something being wrong for the rest of my life.”

Frank also toys carelessly with Billy’s complexes, prying and yanking at loose parts of his psyche like a malicious imp, lecturing Billy that his father was “a man who could have been anything,” which prompts the angry outburst: “Are you saying he was nothing?” Later, Billy has to reassure Frank that although he probably could take Frank’s place, “I don’t wanna be you, Frank.” That this is all part of the act, so to speak, does not make it less true. But what does Billy want? At the end of the movie, it’s impossible to say how Billy is supposed to feel about Frank’s death. Scorsese declines to go there, instead rushing to the dizzying final round of double-crosses. One drawback of the premise is that all the idealistic or criminal motives driving the characters quickly are erased by the more direct exigencies of self-protection. We see Billy spontaneously reach out to grab only one thing: Sullivan’s psychologist girlfriend, Madolyn. Played by Vera Farmiga, she gets less interesting the more implausible her actions become. She is more a mannequin to drape complications upon than a real person: a narrative functionary whose roles as confidant, analyst, and love object let us see Billy’s virility and vulnerable authenticity, and the impotence and thoroughgoing duplicity of Sullivan.

While Infernal Affairs is almost a model of symmetry and concision, The Departed is sprawling, and fifty minutes longer. The plot (the investigation) moves forward on its own, not because of any internal propulsion in the usual mode of a police procedural, but owing to traps, impediments, and new “rules” suddenly springing up. If you start watching at any point, you won’t know whether you are fifteen minutes or two hours in, since the story is at all times pitched to the highest degree of suspense, always cuing up the next jolt, without perceptibly altering the stakes—the consequence of either Billy or Sullivan being unmasked never deepens or varies.

This aimlessness, or episodic meandering, is common to many of Scorsese’s films, as when Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, laments how “Days can go on with regularity over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next,” or the to-and-fro ministering of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. Jesus’s itinerary is taken from the peripatetic Gospel according to John, so that Christ is several times in Jerusalem, in contrast to the more directional path charted in the synoptic Gospels. To be isolated, unmoored—“a complete unknown” in Bob Dylan’s words—is a persistent condition of Scorsese’s heroes. If we are being quite literal, not only do these movies drift, they are often about drifters of some sort. One thinks not only of No Direction Home, which announces this theme in its title, but also of the hustlers in The Color of Money and the exiled Dalai Lama in Kundun. This drifting, whether temporal-existential or merely social-geographic, finds its counterbalance (in the above-named films, Taxi Driver excepted) in the incomparable editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, who helps Scorsese’s narratives avoid potential bagginess.

In The Departed and elsewhere, Scorsese’s heroes may be adrift and stalled in a process of self-definition. But crucially, his heroes are never quite persuaded of their own rhetoric. Contrast Scorsese’s approach with the merely Scorsese-esque. Last year’s American Hustle was compared—and maybe designed to be compared—with Goodfellas. The main difference between David O. Russell’s movie and one by Scorsese is not the former’s froth of sub-Cassavetes hysteria, but rather this: for all the conning and deceit of American Hustle, the characters never stare into the abyss. Amy Adams’s character does not for a moment confuse herself with her British-accented alter-ego Lady Edith; when Christian Bale’s con man remorsefully confides in Jeremy Renner’s local politician that he has been caught in a sting, he is sad to be exposed, but he pathetically can’t offer anything in reply. It’s a safe moral for children: you said you were one thing (my friend), but you were another thing (a reckless liar). Following from his image of people, Russell’s strategy is simple: lock as many of these nutcases as possible into a room and let them monologue their way out. Scorsese’s formal approach is maximalist, to be sure—and these effects are easy for Russell to mimic—but his films offer a picture of the self that is, by contrast, minimalist and stripped-down. For when we are denuded, exhausted, and unaccommodated, there is nothing we can say of ourselves that we know to be true.