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Black Mass is a true-life gangster film about Boston gangster James Bulger, better known as Whitey Bulger, because of his blond hair. Whitey is a name that James Bulger himself hated. He is played in the film by Johnny Depp. The film is set in the period when he was a leading gang-land figure in Boston, and this grim story does seem to stick to the facts as they are generally accepted. However, this is not just a simple gangster story, as it sets out a complicated series of events, that are contentious, and open to debate and interpretation. We are exposed not just to gangsters, but also to law enforcement officers and politicians. There are relationships, but it is not clear who is using who. Thus the film is like American Hustle, though it is no comedy, but rather a grim and bloody gangster film. It is watchable though, despite some heavy scenes. Murders are committed but the film looks at relationships too, be they criminal, or non-criminal.
This Warner Bros film opens with their familiar icon that has graced many a great gangster film over the decades. In fact, the studio has been synonymous with the gangster movie. While the icon is familiar, it is against a totally black background, thus reflecting both the forthcoming subject matter, as well as the title of the film. The title itself comes from the best-seller book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill; Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devils’s Deal. It is the reality of this deal that is at the heart of this film. Who was dealing honestly with who, and who was using who, is explored in this film.
Johnny Depp previously played the role of the Donnie Brasco in the 1997 film of the same name. In that movie, based on the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joe Pistone, Depp plays the role of FBI Agent Pistone infiltrating the Mafia as jewel-thief Donnie Brasco. Thus Black Mass is an appropriate complementary film for Depp and we viewers too. Like Donnie Brasco Black Mass is set in the 70s, so we see plenty of big cars and brown/beige wallpaper too. Donnie Brasco was the story of an FBI Agent infiltrating the Mafia. However, Black Mass is more about gangster infiltration of law-enforcement. This true story is well known in real-life, but is also familiar perhaps to film-goers, being seemingly similar to the film The Departed, itself based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Martin Scorsese has been criticized for re-making a film, however he has clearly based his film on the real-life Boston underworld. Jack Nicholson’s role of Frank Costello is clearly based on Whitey Bulger, and Ray Winstone’s Arnold French character is in a scene that identifies him as the real-life Stephen Flemmi, a close partner of Whitey.
Johnny Depp was a bit too slight and young in looks for his Donnie Brasco role, however his performance was superb. It has been reported that Mr Depp had undergone some serious training to bulk up for his Whitey role. The early scenes set in the 70s have Whitey in his prime. He had grown up poor, served in the army, then served nine years in prison for armed robbery and hijacking. He thus missed much of the Irish Gang War but did encounter most of the major players like Steve (The Rifleman) Flemmi and John Martorano. They ended up working together and all three are important figures in Black Mass. The 1979 arrest of former Winter Hill gang leader Howie Winter and others, was the catalyst for Whitey, Flemmi and Martorano dominating the 1980’s Boston crime-scene. Johnny Depp himself, looks physically powerful in his tight t-shirts of the seventies, and exudes physical menace. As well as being blond-haired, Whitey was also rather pale-skinned and had piercing light-blue eyes. The special-effects of the make-up department have been used to change the color of Depp’s eyes and to generally make him look like Whitey. It was supposedly difficult to look Whitey in the eye, we viewers look into his eyes and see that they are that of a stone cold killer. As the story progresses we see Johnny Depp’s Whitey aging. His hair recedes, and Depp ages convincingly on screen.
Depp is well backed up with a good supporting cast. The film actually opens with Jesse Plemons playing Kevin Weeks and making what seems an outrageous set of remarks in an interrogation. The ensuing film gives us the context and the understanding of those remarks. Plemons will be remembered for his role in Breaking Bad, playing the angelic-faced, and heartless, Todd. Here, Weeks, like Whitey, is shown convincingly through the years, in aging, fashion, and in his real-life role as Whitey’s protege, again something that is mirrored in The Departed. Black Mass several times has characters accusing Whitey of flooding South Boston with drugs. In real-life Weeks says that they banned heroin and PCP, and merely taxed the big importers of other drugs. In reality, the line between taxing, and organizing, is a very thin, or even non-existent, one. There is a slight tendency in this film to blacken Whitey a spot too much. This is clearly shown most with Steve Flemmi played by Rory Cochrane. He seems to be always led by Whitey. However, although Bulger was born in 1929, and Flemmi in 1934, the Rifleman was a veteran of the Irish Gang War. On the subjects raised in this film, rather than Whitey leading, in real-life it was Flemmi. For those familiar with some aspects of the story, there is dread, as it is clear that certain scenes will be played out in their entirety. Weeks is not reticent on his views about Flemmi. W. Earl Brown does a good job playing the almost silent, and thus sinister, John Martorano. However, sadly, we must say that he was miscast. Martorano, in real-life was younger, not older. Born in 1940, he was a protege of Flemmi.
Essentially though, these main gangster characters are just stone cold killers, of no real interest at all. Perhaps the most interesting and enigmatic character is Joel Edgerton’s Special Agent John Connolly. He seems to have as much screen-time as Whitey but is far more interesting. He seems in fact the main protagonist in the story, certainly on the law-enforcement side. Connolly is a brash and confident working-class ‘Southie’ from South Boston, like Whitey. He devises a plan to attack and destroy the Mafia led by Jerry Angiulo. Incidentally, Vincent Teresa’s book has an entertaining story of how Angiulo got his start, as well as an entertaining explanation of the start of the Irish Gang War, who started it, how, and why. However, he misidentifies the person who started the war; either accidentally, or deliberately. A mistake others have copied. Connolly plans to use HE (High Echelon) CI’s (Confidential Informants) to break the Mafia’s hold on OC (Organized Crime). Connolly is by far the most interesting character in this film. His activities do seem to be set out factually, however what they mean is more of an open question. Corruption, sincerity, and stupidity, can all be used to describe his very well known behavior. Other law enforcement characters are well played by Kevin Bacon (the somewhat similar Mystic River), David Harbour (End of Watch), Adam Scott and Corey Stoll. Another interesting character is Billy Bulger, a small part, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Billy, born 1934, was five years younger than his older brother Whitey. This should be born in mind. You choose your friends but not your family. History has dealt harshly with Billy, this film seems fairer, and kinder.
There is a scene in the film that has been criticized because it appears to have been copied from Goodfellas. However, that is a spot harsh. The scene with Ray Liotta as Henry Hill and Joe Pesci as Tommy DeSimone is an iconic scene, one that they and Martin Scorsese are rightly praised for capturing, but it is ridiculous to suggest that Tommy DeSimone is the only gangster who has ever engaged in breaking-balls. The scene in Black Mass is entirely different. Certainly, there is of course menace, but the emphasis in this scene is all about family and loyalty. These themes dominate this film. This is a gangster film, and thus women play only a small part in the film. However, the few, small, female roles, are well played by competent actresses. An early scene, with Whitey, his common-law wife, and their son, produced laughs from the cinema audience. What Whitey said was at such a variance from main-stream attitudes as to produce laughter. However, it is clear that this scene was not for mere entertainment but also to deliver some core Whitey philosophy. His partner Lindsey Cyr is played well by Dakota Johnson, she too imparts her philosophy in a moving scene later on in the film. The angelic English actress, Juno Temple is so sweet in a poignant scene. Julianne Nicholson, appropriately enough from Medford, Massachusetts, was previously that freckle-faced, fresh-faced, short-haired, Detective Megan Wheeler, in the Law & Order: Criminal Intent TV series. Here, playing Marianne Connolly, she does a very tense scene. Audience members will find these scenes intense, especially those most familiar with the subject matter.
When the FBI Agent said “We’re going to win this thing”, during the gang-war being waged at the end of The Sopranos TV series, he had gone rogue. He was in fact repeating what was said in real-life by an FBI Agent during the Colombo War, who had similarly gone rogue. There has been some talk of Sylvester Stallone playing the part of Gregory Scarpa in that story. In some ways it is a similar story to Black Mass. This Black Mass is not the only one being talked about either. There was a story that Bostonian Matt Damon and his Massachusetts pal Ben Affleck were also wanting to do a Whitey film. Incidentally, Johnny Depp, preparing for his role, requested to meet Whitey, who “respectfully declined”.
Whilst, there may be some minor factual inaccuracies, this film does seem like a pretty accurate rendering of a true story. If there is one criticism that could be made of this film it is the use of big orchestral scores which seem to bestow a tragic doomed majesty on Whitey Bulger. This apart, the film does not seem to attempt to whitewash Whitey at all, perhaps being just so slightly over-harsh, if anything, for dramatic effect. It is the doomed victims who deserved the leaden tragic music, not him.
Those who enjoyed the fictional The Departed will no doubt enjoy seeing this true story which it is partly based upon. Those interested in the Boston crime scene should also try to get a hold of Vincent Teresa’s partially factual book. As well as all the other films mentioned above, the film The Friends of Eddie Coyle mines the same area, as does The Brink’s Job which is based on the famous robbery. Those wishing to splurge on Boston-based films should also consider Good Will Hunting.
Black Mass is a good gangster film, based on a true story, and with excellent performances from the main stars of the film and the supporting cast. The decisions made by characters in this film concern the universal subjects of loyalty and lying, and cheating and crossing the line. Freddie Foreman said “If you sleep with dogs you’ll get fleas”. This movie is a not just a gangster film, but a morality play too, as such it is worth seeing on both accounts.