Animal Metaphors in Crime Films

Coincidentally, three of the best crime films of the 2000s feature prominent animal metaphors. I’m talking about Fernando Meirelles’ and Kátia Lund’s City of God, Michael Mann’s Collateral, and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. They all use different nonhuman symbols to mean different things.

I’m not sure how I first heard about City of God, a 2002 Brazilian drama reminiscent of Goodfellas. I likely read about the film in Rolling Stone. The magazine was my cultural Bible through high school. Regardless, I purchased the movie on DVD around the time of its initial release on home video. Starring Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino and others, it immediately became a favorite of mine.

As an animal activist, the opening scene is difficult to watch. A cook slaughters chickens, while a crowd chases an escaped bird through traffic and alleys. Of course, there are distressing moments involving humans in the film, but these are simulated. Those involving animals are real. The moviemaking process, which requires multiple takes, likely made the ordeal particularly traumatizing for the chickens.

In this case, the animals appear to represent the favelas’ human residents, who are doomed to violence and poverty in the same way the birds are doomed to slaughter. Like one chicken escapes from the cook, the central character attempts to escape his upbringing. Both, ultimately, are trapped between gang members and the police in a literal sense.

I believe I saw Collateral in the theater, but I’m not sure. Either way, it quickly earned a place of pride in my DVD collection. While City of God featured an unknown cast, this 2004 thriller starred Tom Cruise, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and Jamie Foxx, who would win an Oscar for his performance in Ray, which released the same year.

The film has a notable scene in which Cruise’s hitman spots some coyotes on a dimly-lit Los Angeles street. There’s a moment of recognition, in which the assassin seems to identify with these creatures, fellow urban predators. They’re outsiders. Just as the hitman flies into the airport at the beginning of the movie, the coyotes are far from their natural environment.

Thankfully, these animals weren’t performers. They were genuinely wild animals the crew happened to catch on video. “I remember driving north on Fairfax and stopping for a light, and these three coyotes just walked diagonally across the intersection, like they absolutely owned it,” Mann explained in City of Night: The Making of Collateral.

There have been few trailers that have gotten me more excited to see a film in theaters than that of The Departed. Here was a 2006 movie directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and many others, with music from The Rolling Stones, The Dropkick Murphys, and Roger Waters. Sign me up!

The film is about undercover informants — ‘rats’ as they’re commonly known. Somewhat controversially, a computer-generated rodent scurries across a windowsill in the final scene. Many viewers felt this was too obvious. And it is, so much so, I assume Scorsese must have included it as a joke.

Taking a step back, it’s not immediately clear how ‘rat’ became a synonym for a snitch. Apparently, some etymologists believe rats grew to be associated with dishonor because of their understandable desire to escape sinking ships. But there is no definitive answer.

City of God, Collateral, and The Departed aren’t just some of the greatest crime movies of the 2000s, they’re some of my favorite films. It wasn’t until I considered them as a group that I realized they all used nonhuman metaphors. Whatever the merits of Scorsese’s choice, computer-generated imagery is the gold standard when it comes to depicting animals in movies.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at