Produced by Cross Creek Pictures
Directed by Scott Cooper
Screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth,
based on the book Black Mass, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill
Distributed by Warner Brothers
Ever since The Great Train Robbery flashed on the screen in 1903, Americans have been enthralled by gangster movies. They not only are exciting but provide a safe way to vent tribal and social tensions.
I first realized this in 1959 when I went with two Italian friends to see Rod Steiger in Al Capone. We responded to the movie according to our ethnic and social backgrounds. My friends were Brooklyn natives, while I had recently moved into their neighborhood from a Long Island suburb. Upon leaving the theater, one of my friends, Eddie, allowed that he had liked the movie well enough but was disappointed that it had left out all the good Capone had done. “Good?” I asked naively. Well, yes, Eddie continued. True, Capone had an unfortunate habit of using lethal force against his adversaries and, furthermore, corrupted police and politicians and also encouraged prostitution. On the other hand, his wealth and luxurious lifestyle declared him a second-generation immigrant success story. Naturally, he lifted the morale of working people while providing them with the booze they needed to soothe their underclass privations. The working folk Eddie had in mind were, of course, mostly Italian. Eddie’s analysis shook my suburban propriety. It didn’t occur to me that my urban Irish cousins reacted in much the same manner watching Jimmy Cagney defy authority whenever Public Enemy or White Heat showed up on television. To my almost certain knowledge, neither my friends nor my cousins were criminals, but they nevertheless were not entirely happy with the officials charged with keeping order in the land of the free.
Gangster films were a peaceful mode of class warfare with a pronounced ethnic edge. This began to change with Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather: Part II in 1974 and Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas in 1990. These films portrayed criminals either as cold-hearted schemers or hideous psychopaths. As such, they were improvements, ethically speaking at least, over Cagney standing on top of a gas tower in White Heat jubilantly bellowing, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” as he gloriously exploded himself in a fireball of heroic defiance. Compare this scene with the ending of The Godfather: Part II in which a saturnine Al Pacino glumly looks on from his sunroom as his henchman murders his traitorous brother.
Black Mass belongs to the dour school of cinematic criminology. As its title forewarns, it’s a funereal account of the career of the psychopathic punk Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger. Based on the book of the same title by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, it leaves little room for jubilance. Instead, it’s a solemn Mass for the dead of spirit.
Johnny Depp plays Bulger, a small-time hood who, with the connivance of the FBI, became South Boston’s major menace from the 1970’s to the 1990’s. He was responsible for shaking down businessmen, both legal and illegal, flooding the city with drugs and prostitutes, and killing at least 19 people, including two girls whom, for his own pleasure, he throttled to death. He was able to get away with his crimes because he had entered into an agreement with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). As long as Bulger agreed to snitch on other criminals, the Bureau would cover his trail of mayhem.
Connolly grew up in the same housing project as Bulger, who earned the younger man’s undying gratitude by protecting him from school bullies. This history between them gave Connolly an idea. Perhaps Bulger would come to his aid once again now that he was with the FBI. It was the early 70’s, and J. Edgar Hoover was feeling increasingly pressed to do something about the Mafia, whose activities in major American cities he had previously ignored. Now he wanted the dagos routed from their urban lairs and locked up—permanently, if possible. So he began to sic his agents on the mobsters, especially his Irish agents, who had long-standing antipathy for their Italian counterparts. Connolly not unnaturally assumed that Bulger would be willing to help him clean house in Boston. After all, didn’t Bulger and his colleagues have intimate knowledge of Mafia operations? Indeed, they did. In fact, they not infrequently participated in those operations in wary conjunction with the Italians, indulging in bookmaking, loan sharking, drug running, and prostitution—the usual underworld profit centers. The one obstacle to Connolly’s plan was Bulger’s delicacy regarding ratting on anyone, even the Mediterraneans. Connolly, however, overcame this by persuasively arguing it wouldn’t be ratting at all. Bulger and his gang would be forming an alliance against a common enemy, with the goal of improving life for their own kind. Sure, and shouldn’t the Micks have their own fiefdom in a city they considered the westernmost province of the auld sod? Why should they cede so much as an acre to the wops? Grasping Connolly’s logic, Bulger agreed to his proposition. Of course, he added to the plan a few unspoken provisions of his own. Connolly told him the FBI would ignore any “victimless” crimes he committed, but they couldn’t and wouldn’t tolerate murder. Bulger, however, had enemies he was determined to keep at bay. That meant the odd murder now and then. Such mischief was necessary if he were to continue to expand his business interests. Besides, he enjoyed killing people. This pleasure, however, led to a strategic mistake that would begin Bulger’s fall. When Tulsa businessman Roger Wheeler bought the World Jai Alai organization, he unknowingly stepped on Bulger’s sensitive toes. Bulger’s associates had been using the Jai Alai income to launder profits from his illegal enterprises. When Wheeler noticed irregularities in his new company, he instituted an investigation. So Bulger had him killed and then ordered the deaths of at least two of his own men who had participated in the assassination. He didn’t like to leave loose ends. His squeamishness on this point backfired this time. You don’t have a multimillionaire and former chairman of the Telex corporation shot to death at his country club without attracting fairly close scrutiny.
For nearly 20 years, Bulger and his gang had free rein in Boston. In return, he gave the FBI generic Mafia gossip, much of it already common knowledge among law-enforcement agents. Although Connolly thought he was playing Bulger, it was really the other way round. Unless, of course, Connolly was only pretending to play Bulger. The film is somewhat agnostic on this point. It might have been that Connolly and Bulger had entered into a connivance by which Connolly could pretend to think he was receiving useful information from Bulger. In other words, both men could have been jointly deceiving the FBI. Supporting this interpretation of events are Connolly’s decisions to send at least two men to their deaths by revealing to Bulger their offers to cooperate with the Bureau.
After the roof fell in on Connolly, Bulger managed to escape with his mistress, going on a 16-year nationwide—some say worldwide—luxury tour, finally settling down as a retiree in Santa Monica, where he was apprehended in 2011 at 81 years of age. In 2013, he was convicted of his crimes and sentenced to two life sentences and another five years. Those dedicated to just deserts aren’t likely to be satisfied. Actuarial science strongly suggests Bulger won’t be serving much of this sentence.
Other than a fairly convincing presentation of the facts of the case, what will most impress you about this film is the acting. The chameleonic Depp once again inhabits his role so completely that you forget he’s the Hollywood pretty boy who looks at you from the movie magazines every time you pass through the checkout at your local supermarket. Prosthetics have given Depp a chiseled nose and feral teeth. Ice-blue contact lenses and an improbably upswept coiffure supply him with a heartless alien demeanor. But it’s Depp’s soft, insinuating voice and sneering Boston accent that most conveys Bulger’s sinister charm and monstrous vindictiveness.
As Connolly, Joel Edgerton proves once again how skillful an actor he is. Cocky one moment, smarmy the next, he looks at the world through squinting eyes, constantly assessing his main chance. I also liked Benedict Cumberbatch’s brief performance as Bulger’s brother Billy, the quietly efficient powerbroker who served as president of the Massachusetts senate for a record 18 years. After leaving this post, he went on to a brief tour as president of the University of Massachusetts, until he had to step down when it was revealed he had kept in touch with his brother while the latter was on the lam. Billy is now supporting himself on a paltry annual pension of $198,205.92. But don’t worry. It’s reasonable to suspect he has other revenue sources. (To think Massachusetts was founded by Puritans!)
Black Mass isn’t what anyone would call an enjoyable evening at the Bijou. It lacks Hollywood’s signature Cagney fireworks. On the other hand, it is a chilling account of law enforcement gone thoroughly, depressingly wrong. And that, though sobering, seems to me thrilling enough.