Martin Scorsese is widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, not just for the big screen narrative he weaves and the memorable characters he brings to life, but also because of his artistry as a visual storyteller. He is a director who pays rigorous attention to subjects in frame of his camera, and by extension you could watch all of his movies on mute and still maintain a firm grasp on what’s happening in the plot. He has a brilliant eye for detail, and a perfect demonstration can be found in the background of numerous scenes in the 2006’s The Departed.
If you’re paying close enough attention while watching the Best Picture-winning film, you may start to notice that there is a common motif in the production design of many key sequences: the presence of an X or multiple Xs. Per what was described above, this is hardly an accident, and happens to be not only a clever use of foreshadowing, but a direct tribute to one Martin Scorsese’s favorite directors.
This obvious is fully of spoilers from The Departed, so if you haven't gotten around to seeing the movie, we suggest you do that before continuing on...
What The Xs Mean, And Their Origin
To understand the use of Xs in The Departed, we have to take a trip back in history much further than 2006, as this story really begins in 1932 with the release of Howard Hawks’ Scarface (the original that Brian De Palma remade with Al Pacino in 1983). Hawks uses the shape throughout the movie to symbolize that living the life of a gangster means to live life as a marked man. Thus, the X is used to foreshadow death – and we see that repeatedly through Martin Scorsese’s film as an homage.
That’s arguably only half of the full interpretation, however. The whole plot of The Departed centers on characters who are acting duplicitously and betraying those they trust, and what’s a synonym for that? To double-cross. There are multiple levels in play here.
The Characters Marked For Death
So now that you know why there are so many Xs in the background of The Departed, let’s dig into the details and discuss exactly who it is among the extensive ensemble cast that winds up being marked for death (fun fact: the list includes every notable character who touches the envelope pictured above)
Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson)
Martin Scorsese wastes absolutely no time in The Departed deploying his first X, as it’s featured in what is the first original shot in the movie (not counting the archived footage that plays following the studio logos). It’s Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello, draped in shadows, who passes a pair of crossed beams, and it means that those in the know are aware that he is not going to be among the plot’s survivors.
Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon)
Colin Sullivan gets away with a lot of horrible things in The Departed, and he is unquestionably one of Matt Damon’s most hateable characters, but it’s very early on that the audience is assured of his fate with a well-placed X in the second shot after the movie’s title card. Beyond that there are several others placed in his vicinity throughout the film, including some street graffiti, some tricks of the light, and when we discover that he is number 10 on the rugby team (a.k.a. Roman Numeral X). Of course, his end of the line is reached when he arrives home to discover Mark Wahlberg’s Sean Dignam waiting for him, but that’s only after he walks across a carpet with a red X pattern.
Billy Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio)
In the same way that the Xs offer hope for the death of The Departed’s villains, the symbolism generates dread when it comes to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan Jr. One of the biggest shocks of the film is when he gets a bullet in the head in the third act, but it’s less surprising when you remember the giant Xs at the airport, the icon used by Colin to delete his file on the computer, and even the duct tape behind his head when he’s trying to arrest Colin.
Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen)
The case of Captain Queenan is kind of like the Rosetta Stone when it comes to the Xs in The Departed. If you witness them independently throughout the movie, you may not be entirely clear what they mean – but then Martin Sheen’s character flies past eight windows with crosses made of tape as he plummets to his death. After that point it’s pretty hard to miss what the Xs are symbolizing.
James Barrigan (James Badge Dale)
Much like the death of Billy Costigan, another one of The Departed’s late big surprises is the revelation that Colin Sullivan wasn’t the only member of the Boston Police Department working as a mole for Frank Costello’s criminal syndicate. James Badge Dale’s James Barrigan was also secretly feeding the gangster information, and that’s why he makes the call to assassinate Billy Costigan. Of course, the revelation comes paired with Barrigan standing right next to a pair of Xs, so you immediately know his fate is sealed (and the double crosses also hint that Colin is about to shoot him in the head).
Tony Brown (Anthony Anderson)
Lastly we have the sad story of Anthony Anderson’s Tony Brown. Unlike Colin Sullivan or James Barrigan, Brown is an uncorrupt trooper serving as an honorable member of the Boston Police Department, and the only reason he gets dragged into the whole mess that is The Departed’s plot is because he is a friend of Billy Costigan’s from the academy. Watching the film knowing about the Xs, you can’t help but feel bad when one pops up right next to him shortly before the elevator containing Billy and Colin closes its doors.
For your pleasure, we have created a gallery full of screenshots from The Departed featuring more than 20 of the background Xs – and you’ll note that all of them feature characters who aren’t still breathing when Roy Buchanan's "Sweet Dreams" begins to play and the end credits start to roll.
Does this bit of trivia improve your appreciation of Martin Scorsese’s Boston set gangster epic? Hopefully it does, and you can keep this bit of trivia in mind the next time you watch. Speaking of which, The Departed is currently streaming on HBO Max, and is also available for purchase at various digital outlets and on Blu-ray and DVD.