The title Black Mass could be referring to the dark alliance between the notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) and the unscrupulous childhood friend-turned-FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, The Gift), and their eventual downfall. But, the title made me think of the dark corners of the city, in the river, where they’ve killed and disposed of so many people. The bodies lie, and this unholy conspiracy operates, unseen for so long amongst the black waters hiding beneath the shadows of civil society.
The most sinister and corrupt hearts operate within the system of justice and peace, walking through its blind spots. This is where Bulger crept.
Depp portrays the legendary criminal in a spectacular performance. He channels some sort of evil for the role – it just resonates off of him. Buldger is a man that sees the world and everyone in it as a means to his end. He tells his son, after the boy was in a fight with a bully at school, that he got in trouble not because of what he did, but because he was caught. “It’s not what you do, it’s when and where you do it, and who you do it to or with… If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”
But, even though Bulger is at the center of the criminal enterprise, Bulger is kept aloft by his close friends and associates. This includes his brother, Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), whom was a state senator, The FBI agent John Connolly, close associate Stephen Flemmi (Kevin Weeks, Todd from Breaking Bad), and hitman John Martorano (W. Earl Brown).
This goes the same with Johnny Depp and these fellow actors. Black Mass may revolve around Depp’s performance, but the film is evened out by almost everyone else. Cumberbatch has a native English accent, but puts on a Bostonian one and pulls himself into his role as the intimidating politician that knows too well about his brother’s criminal activities. Kevin Weeks, recognizable from the show Breaking Bad where he played the character Todd, is also very strong. His character becomes the close-knit partner of Bulger, starting out as a young thug to a loyal right-hand man. Edgerton is almost unrecognizable as Connolly. John Connolly was extremely important to Bulger because he was an opportunist that didn’t really care about justice, but instead his own glory. He thought it was a great idea to get his childhood buddy, Bulger, into the FBI as a secret informant. That way, Connolly could bring down the other Boston criminal organizations while Bulger could expand his. Bulger, for about a decade, had cover to go run amok, murdering his way to the top. And his power even eclipsed Connolly’s.
One particularly tense scene has Bulger at Connolly’s home for dinner. Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson), at this point, is suspicious and scared of Bulger. She hates that her husband is close to the criminal and loathes that he is eating dinner in their home. She pretends that she is sick and stays in the bedroom. However, Bulger insists on saying hi to her, and makes it very clear to her that he knows how she feels about him. He goes up to check on her despite her husband’s protest, and feigns concern over her feeling ill. However, a darker, haunting tone slowly resonates from his initial facade of concern.
It’s interesting if the concern and love he has for his son is not for the sake of his son as an individual, sentient being, but rather, solely, because his son is an extension of himself. His property and legacy. His continuation of corruption and greed.
He would have someone killed after wishing them well and giving a pat on the back.
That’s Bulger, at least as he’s portrayed in the movie. His true nature is kept in a deep, dark well which – through Depp’s performance and makeup – you can always see subtly bubbling to the surface through his eyes and off-putting smile. And when his monstrous nature does come boiling out, he’s always set up in a position where, through intimidation and conspiracy, he can still walk unseen in the light of day.
It is for these people that the rule and enforcement of law is for. But, hauntingly, it still forces the smartest and most ambitious to work, whisper, and network beneath the comforting surface of decency and justice.
I am not a fan of gangster movies. My interest is quickly extinguished when I hear that something is about the mafia/the mob. But, Black Mass transcends that. It’s a fantastic character study (whether or not it’s fully factual is irrelevant to whether or not the movie, itself, is good) that commands attention all the way through with a cast of actors that make the world of the film seamless and organic.
(Also, Black Mass is shot on film, rather than digital. A medium which needs continued support in the movie industry)