Oh, there is one. You just have to find her hiding underneath the sea of seething state-troopahs, cell-phone chimes, cocaine operas, and micro-prawcessahs.
Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote that “most of the finest American directors working now make little on-screen time for women.” I couldn’t agree more. I also think that in the meantime, it’s up to us to be a perceptive audience and unearth the value and nuance in female characters in films which are dominated by burley males with guns and identity crises.
Multifaceted women are scarce in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” but there is one worth our while. Madolyn, the “police shrink,” is played with considerable depth, intelligence, and intrigue by Vera Farmiga. Fine acting aside, if we take a very close look at Maddy’s role as it relates to other characters as well as to the film’s plot and theme, she may indeed be (streeeeeeetch) the most powerful and insightful character in the film.
Little Miss Freud
Let’s consider some less obvious manifestations of Madolyn’s power. For one, she is the only character aware of Sullivan’s (Matt Damon) impotence. Being a therapist, she casually assures Sullivan that it’s a “common” problem for men–while suggestively (perhaps mockingly?) peeling a banana. This knowledge secures her sexual prowess over Sullivan. Maddy knows full well that his cock is indeed not “workin’ ovah-time.”
Consider the scene where Sullivan receives the phone call from Costello (Jack Nicholson) while Maddy is moving her things into his apartment. This scene revolves around how Madolyn observes and scrutinizes Sullivan. There are numerous instances where her eyes linger searchingly on Sullivan as he goes about his morning routine (wherein he does display a hint of innocuous sexism, such as forcing Maddy to hide childhood pictures, making her answer the phone, etc). We, the perceptive audience, notices these sidelong, intuitive glances; Sullivan obviously does not.
In the same scene, Madolyn answers a phone call from Costello and blithely believes that the voice distortion belongs to a “cancer guy.” This reveals her utter ignorance and detachment from the organized crime sphere. Yet, she nevertheless looks at Sullivan with more doubt, suspicion, and curiosity in the twenty minutes before and after this phone call than any of the trained detectives surrounding him at the police force. Later in the film, during the micro-prawcessah raid scene, we’re convinced that Queenan (Martin Sheet) is going to catch Sullivan in the act. Instead Queenan hands Sullivan the entire operation. Madolyn evidently sees something unsettling in Sullivan that these so-called “detectives” cannot. After all, she is “little Ms. Freud.
You Know Who I Am
Unlike Sullivan and Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), Maddy retains her sense of self because she is not forced to hide her identity. In this sense, she holds more power within because, unlike her lead male counterparts, she does not live in perpetual fear of being discovered. Sullivan’s identity crisis worsens when he kills Costello after realizing that that he’s an FBI informant; at this stage, he can’t even distinguish himself Costello’s rat. On the other hand, undercover troopah Costigan grasps desperately to childhood pictures, the only material proof of his true identity which he chooses to relinquish for the call of duty. Madolyn, however, displays pictures from her childhood in her apartment, which pleases Costigan (to Maddy’s delight) because he finds solace in her ability to unabashedly display her identity.
The most obvious source of Madolyn’s power is her underlying connection between Sullivan and Costigan—she is dually Sullivan’s “serious” girl-friend and Costigan’s therapist-turned-secret-lover. It is this connection that gives her the broadest perspective and knowledge of any character in the film, because at one point, she is the only character who knows, simultaneously, that Sullivan is the rat and Costigan is the undercover troopah. This moment arrives when Costigan sends Sullivan recordings between him and Costello as a threat; Madolyn sees Costigan’s name on the return address, puts two and two together, and plays the tapes. In a wonderfully refreshing scene, Madolyn does not wilt in fear when she hears the recordings of her future husband cavorting with Boston’s crime lord; nor does she flee with the evidence. Instead, she looks Sullivan in the eye and yanks out the earphone plug, allowing his lies and secrets to pervade the entire room.
Lastly, we must not forget that Madolyn becomes the only person Costigan can trust after Queenan’s death and Dignam’s (Mark Wahlberg) “leave of absence.” Costigan therefore leaves her an envelope containing what I assume to be documents revealing his true identity, as well as proof that Sullivan is Costello’s rat. Madolyn now holds the absolute power in the film—the ability to bring a sense of justice and closure to a story where justice seemes unattainable; where the good-guys suffer senseless deaths while the villain would go undiscovered and unpunished. How do you think Dignam found out that Sullivan was the rat? Ultimately, we have Madolyn to thank for the film’s surprise and satisfying ending. Thanks, Maddy!
Costigan is clearly the film’s protagonist and hero. His desire to shed his criminal persona and regain his identity must be fulfilled for there to be a sense of resolution in the film. Madolyn carries Costigan’s blood and identity by bearing his child. She is the only character with the power to start a new life for herself and fulfill Costigan’s wish of regaining his name and identity through a son. Motherhood may not be the most feminist path for Madolyn, but remember, this is a Scorsese film—at least she wasn’t the butt any madcap knife-throwing shenanigans.
One last note to Scorsese, P.T. Anderson, and the Coen brothers: you guys are awesome and “O Brother, Where Art Thou” is a gem, but finding the worth of a female character in an Oscar- winning film should not have to be this hard.
And one more time, for shits and giggles: MICRO-PRAWCESSAHS.