William Monahan, Siu Fai Mak, Felix Chong, and Martin Scorsese, 2006
Boston crime boss Frank Costello places a spy among the Massachusetts
State Police. The Massachusetts State Police place a spy among Costello's
More intrigue among criminals from Martin Scorsese here, this time with
cops thrown in. As with Goodfellas,
it did little for me because the issues involved with participating in
and/or busting organized crime have nothing to do with my life.
I did find myself thinking, "Okay, this can't just be about the mob
— what's the movie really about? What are we possibly
supposed to get from yet another mob story?" And thinking it over,
I found that a few exchanges really stuck out. The first was when
the undercover cop asks Costello why he does this. It's the same
question I asked about Goodfellas: Why give up any sense of
security in exchange for a pink Buick or a tacky apartment? For
Costello, at least, it isn't the money: "I haven't needed the money
since I took Archie's milk money in third grade. To tell you the
truth, I don't need pussy anymore, either." So then why? Why make
yourself a target of the cops, other mobs, ambitious underbosses?
In the end, the answer seems to be as simple as this: Costello is
an asshole. Being a crime boss is just an outlet for his supreme
assholiness. And he isn't even necessarily the biggest asshole in
the movie: competing for the title is Staff Sergeant Dignam of the
Special Investigations Unit, played by Marky Mark. Dignam is
ludicrously abusive to everyone he encounters. Without an official
power structure to back him up he would very likely get shot in the
face very quickly. So police work is his outlet for his assholish
nature. The difference between the criminal and the cop is that
Costello's chaotic evil and Dignam's lawful evil. (Maybe neutral
evil. I don't play D&D.)
When the undercover cop, Billy Costigan, asks the psychiatrist whether
the cops she counsels cry, she says yes, they do "if they've had to use
their weapons." Costigan replies, "Let me tell you something —
they signed up to use their weapons, most of them, all right,
but they watch enough TV so they know they have to weep." It's
actually a pretty brave argument! Because when you say that both cops
and criminals are violent people who happened to grow up in different
neighborhoods, the logical extension of your argument is that the
"terrorists" we're supposed to hate and the "troops" we're supposed to
support both signed up to kill foreigners — they just happen to
come from different neighborhoods.
I was pretty thrown by the beginning of the movie, when the Rolling
Stones are playing on the soundtrack, Jack Nicholson (as Costello) is
doing a voiceover talking about Kennedy, and all the cars look ancient.
All signs point to this as Wonder Years territory. Here we meet
the Matt Damon character as a kid. It's his first encounter with Costello.
Costello asks, "You like comic books?" And the comic book he gives him...
is Wolverine #11, dated Early September 1989 (meaning it came out
in mid-summer). Then we jump to "the present." Now, the movie is packed
solid with cell phones. It's practically a Sprint commercial. So let's
go ahead and say that the present is 2006, the year the movie was released.
Add 17 years to the earlier scene and that puts the Damon character in his
mid- to late 20s. That seems about right, for the character. (Let's forget
for a moment that Damon is actually pushing 40 and was in college when
Wolverine #11 came out.) So if this first scene is supposed to take
place in 1989, why all the misdirection? Why not some era-appropriate cars?
You want to signal '89, you don't put the damn Stones on the soundtrack.
You put on Fine Young Cannibals, or Milli Vanilli. Or hey, New Kids on the
Block! Might've been able to have Marky Mark call in a connection there.
Return to the Calendar page!