On "The Departed:" Honor, Identity & Dignity

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.


Jack Nicholson’s character, Frank Costello, rejects the Church in The Departed for no less purpose than to play God. Why should he participate in the Eucharistic meal, where two or three meet in Christ’s name, Christ becoming all in all, when he can make his own way? The question only comes up late in the movie whether anything after his own existence can be assured; I am not speaking of eternal life.

The Departed refuses to give a vision of criminality that shies away from the word “evil.” Most times we want to think of criminals as merely those who don’t have and steal for survival. Or they have lost something great and a void has emerged in their hearts. We don’t want to believe evil exists. We want our criminals to be motivated by want of survival or the manifold problems which accompany love. In some ways, this line of thought comes from political philosophy post-Hobbes. To say that we’re primarily scared of violent death, that we’re only concerned with self-preservation, is to neglect focusing on criminal psychology. It’s to say that we all have the same motives in a sense.

The unfortunate consequence of this sort of reasoning – reasoning which human equality can be built from – is that we can’t say that cops are better than criminals. Pajiba’s review of this movie falls prey to that ridiculous notion, that DiCaprio’s good cop and Damon’s corrupt cop are really alike. They’re nowhere near alike: this movie makes it very clear that there is a big difference between one who would take a bullet for someone he doesn’t know and another who would kill just because he could.

If we take the questions this movie raises through its characters seriously, we can see even larger differences between our typical worldview and the one which has Jack Nicholson’s villain who-would-be-god on the one side and DiCaprio’s cop forced into not being himself. DiCaprio’s cop, William Costigan, merits further comment. He became a cop because his family had always been involved in crime. It disgusted him, and he literally wanted to make the one person who counted (Mom, of course) proud. But he is pressed into going undercover in Costello’s gang, so he has to do jail time, see a court-ordered shrink, and only a few cops can actually know he’s a cop. His ability to have the identity he wants is taken away from him for the sake of justice. He not only can’t be honored in such a way as to make Mom proud, but he can’t even have the dignity that might attend a normal person working a regular job.

Nicholson’s villain has the identity he wants, that of being a tyrant, receiving a warped honor from his thugs. But ultimately, given that everyone thinks he’s psycho or sleaze, what is most telling about his identity is his holding complete control over honors dispensed. Because of him, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) can rise as a cop with an immaculate record to the near top of the police force, being an informant for his gang the whole while. The villains in The Departed have a curious control over how we normally see the world. Their real expertise lies not in drug-dealing or stealing or killing. It’s in corrupting our institutions and using them for their purposes. To get justice, one will have to lack nobility and have a fluid sense of identity. This is a superhuman burden to carry, as you’re being told by what you’re fighting for that you’re not allowed to be yourself.

One might be dismissive of the idea of having one’s identity stolen like this. The question of honor usually concerns how others regard the self through the institutions we have set down. We could say that truly striving for self-knowledge should be a more than adequate replacement for such honor. Self-knowledge doesn’t stem from sociability through institutions but through the persistent quest for a Good that transcends any given institution or time. Considerations of honor, on this view, collapse into mere considerations of desire.

Costigan (DiCaprio) transcends honor because of the link between self-knowledge and his assertion of identity. All Costigan has is self-knowledge and the doubt which attends it. There is no family, there isn’t much money, and he has no power. He possesses nothing remotely characteristic of honor other than self-sacrifice. The link between his want of justice and being honored is almost coincidental. No one can say he didn’t lead a good life.

However, that’s where he ends up. I ask you to consider the cost. To not be sure who you are while having to assert yourself; to know you’re right, but at the same time be suspect under the law you fight to uphold. Self-knowledge and identity link to honor, truly: if anyone should be honored, it’s this cop. The price of having to doubt society and yourself – a doubt which, in truth, is knowledge – is having a life in this world.

Which brings us back to the concept of dignity, which we claim all men have, and purposely place lower than other, “higher” honors. All men may not necessarily be equal in the same way. That we extend an equality of dignity to all means that we need to recognize the virtues that accompany truly having dignity. We try to extend dignity to all because of those few who really do stand above. It’s only coincidental Costigan is publicly honored, but that’s because of the irony that his relation to honor is the most fundamental.

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  1. Dear Hellen Keller,
    I would have sent this with a sound bite but I have recently realized that you are blind, def, and unable to type with thoes club hands. Perhaps, you have gotten yourself placed in that room with many door nobs.

  2. I’m going to agree with Gracchi. I’m glad that you wrote out the analysis from this perspective. It may have been apparant at some subconscious level, but the space between honor and self-identity was certainly nowhere near the front of my thoughts when I saw this movie.

    Honor has always seemed a particularly strange and foreign concept to me. Who cares what others think of you when you know that you’ve been right- says I. Maybe that stems from having had a few too many enemies and lies spread.

    So, having no honor myself, but a health does of dignity, and an only sometimes confused sense of self… I just never “got” honor.

    It doesn’t really matter, though. That’s got little to do with the movie, does it?

  3. Ashok:

    As you know I recently wrote on this movie, and just ran across this…I wanted to ask you about a couple things.

    The French Revolution dealt with, maybe not the idea of pure evil, but guys like Robespierre certainly felt that aristocratic members of the regime ancienne couldn’t live in the new society because they were corrupted (this leads to the mass killings of the Terror to ‘purify’ France). I think that we as Americans tend to reject this idea and believe that men can rise from evil to goodness. As I tried to show, Costello’s gripe with the civil rights movement at the very start of the film seems at least ostensibly to indicate some sort of motivation to simply ‘survive,’ as you point out — we all hope this is true, not wanting to face the ugly truth. Does my idea run into problems? You do sort of get the idea that Costello feels law is unjust — until you find out hes an FBI guy…

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