The other night I watched the film "Righteous Kill" which has, in my view, the two best NYPD actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as the central characters. I was left thinking about the psychology of the narrative and what it means for me as a psychotherapist.
One reading of the film is that it describes how people are often drawn into situations or careers where there is some possibility of making their lives manageable.
The story centres around two New York cops, Turk Cowan (De Niro) and Rooster Fisk (Al Pacino) who spend their lives hunting down the scum of the city. This gives them plenty of opportunity to project the elements of their internal world which are unbearable to them. They spend their lives dealing with the "bad objects" they have never been able to confront inside themselves. These bad objects might either be vicious elements of their own psyche they have never been able to integrate because they were not given the help they needed as kids to do so, or people from their past who have treated them so badly there has been no possibility of mourning the loss it represented.
This rather simple picture is complicated by the human tendency of a victim, especially amongst children, to identify with the person who is hurting them and take the blame upon themselves. As W.R.D.Fairbairn suggested: 'Better to be full of sin living in a world ruled by God, than to be good in a world ruled by the Devil'. Some compromise between being a bad person and hating the bad person has to be found. When the badness is extreme, a catastrophic collapse into being bad has to be guarded against at all times and at all costs.
Turk is the suspect throughout the film because we see him as flawed and we don't like to see the people we rely on to keep the world in order as flawed. He is an angry man who loses it sometimes. He makes himself available in the film for us to project the disowned and out of control parts of ourselves onto.
Rooster on the other hand appears beyond reproach. He is devoted to Turk as his buddy, and it seems he would walk through fire on his behalf. Only at the end does it become apparent how tortured he is.
One way of managing badness is to find an ideal other to identify with. If the identification is thorough enough the other can feel like an extension of oneself. If the other is able to bear this idealisation, the good parts of oneself may be felt to be projected into and held in safekeeping by the other.
Rooster is in this position: He uses Turk as an ideal other who he depends upon to keep the good parts of himself safe. He needs Turk right beside him – his 'buddy' – at all times.
For Rooster, the good and bad are split and located elsewhere – the good in the 'ideal other' (Turk) and the bad in the criminals he is hunting down. As long as the good is held close enough, and the bad made alien enough, some kind of status quo can be maintained, even though it leaves him impoverished as a person, having to spectate as Turk lives his life.
However Rooster's system is brittle, and the breakdown of Turk as an ideal, represented by his manipulating of the evidence in the Randall case, threatens to overwhelm Rooster. The goodness is corrupted and the badness threatens to flood in: Efforts to hunt down and destroy all the badness 'out there' (the criminals) have to be redoubled, particularly where there is something about the criminal that reminds Rooster of what is wrong in him.
In the end Rooster's envy of Turk also becomes unbearable as Turk appears more and more separate from him. The envy was manageable so long as he felt like his closest buddy, but now he is more and more 'other' as Rooster is overtaken with his own feelings of badness. Overtaken with his envy he rapes Turk's girlfriend who he had long fantasised about.
This is simplistic, there are many layers to the film, but it had me thinking about psychotherapy. If people who struggle with 'bad' objects are attracted to a career in the police force, are people with 'mad' objects attracted to a career in mental health? This is not a new or original thought. I am not the only person who has had the experience of turning up a psychiatric facility and wondering who are the staff and who are the patients, however something about this film enabled me to think a little further about it.
I think it was the failure of the ideal object that caught my attention and how that failure can threaten one with catastrophe. Where a particular theory or practitioner – perhaps one's supervisor or training analyst – fails one in away that seems unbearable, what does it mean for one's patients?
This is not limited to psychotherapy: The ideal other can be a guru, a partner, a belief. The film is a very skillfully constructed story about what happens when the way we manage starts to fail us.