As the head of the Winter Hill Gang, remorseless Irish-American gangster, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) rules the streets of early 1970s South Boston (Southie). The northern territories are dominated by the Italians; the Angiulo Crime Family and they’re looking in, to muscle in and take Southie from beneath him. Whitey’s childhood friend, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), is under pressure from the bureau and his superior, Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) to nail the Italians. He secretly makes an offer to Whitey. He offers the psychopathic Bulger immunity for all his crimes if he turns informant for the FBI. Whitey’s brother, Bill Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) turns a blind eye to his criminal brother’s illegal activities. This looks so shady onscreen because Bill Bulger was state senator.
It was based on the book and true story written by Boston Globe journalists, Dick Lehr (magazine writer) and Gerard O’Neil (editor of the investigative team) but also showcasing some of show business’ lesser known talent including Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades Of Grey) as Lyndsey Cyr, Juno Temple as Steve Flemmi’s (Rory Cochrane) prostitute girlfriend Debbie. Furthermore there was Jesse Plemons (Fargo) as Kevin Weeks and Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) as the cold, emotionless and uptight FBI chief, Fred Wyshak.
The Americans got the movie two months before the UK and I was miffed because I had been waiting for this movie for months. I finally got to see it on November 17 at my local Cineworld in an unlimited viewing. It was worth the wait. It was dark, gritty and Bulger had turned Southie into a war zone. One of the first scenes we see in the movie is Weeks and Bulger taking a drive. They love taking drives in all gangster flicks. “Let’s take a drive”. This drive normally ends up with someone getting a bullet in their head and dumping the body in ‘the place’. You know the place? They took one of the members of the Angiulo crime family for a drive in which they proceeded to beat him up, within an inch of his life and dump him in the middle of a beach. It’s a pretty brutal introduction to the film.
The movie lived up to my hype. It’s not comparable to the likes of The Godfather or Goodfellas but it’s more on point with Casino, Donnie Brasco or the legendary Scarface. The movie is brutal and very scary with a sort of eerie feel to it. The score from Tom Holkenberg (Mad Max: Fury Road) gave me the creeps as it was meshed with Depp’s surreal psychopathic aura as Whitey. In all gangster flicks, there’s always a character who has a temper and gets angry in public at the wrong times. In the Godfather, it was Sonny (James Caan) and in Goodfellas it was Tommy (Joe Pesci). In Black Mass, we had one of Bulgers side-guys who was killed off for getting drunk and running his mouth off to Whitey. Whitey gets angry but isn’t techy, he knows there’s a time and a place.
The movie is told in constant flashbacks from different perspectives between Kevin Weeks and Steve Flemmi, telling us what they thought of him after the fact. It’s told in flashbacks to good use, but on the other hand, I was sad there weren’t any flashbacks from Whitey in Alcatraz or from Connolly, when they were kids. John idolized Jimmy and I would have liked to have seen them as children. The constant theme that crops up throughout the whole movie is the concept of loyalty. John, Whitey and Billy all grew up on the streets. Loyalty is something they hold most dear, and that’s why the partnership between John and Whitey worked so well. Referring back to my other point, I’d like to have seen a younger Whitey in Alcatraz and the events leading up to him being there. I’d like to have seen how it changed him and his ideologies because James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is no ordinary criminal. An ordinary criminal couldn’t have manipulated the FBI into taking out his opposition. That took intelligence, cunning and a great degree of tact.
In my opinion, it’s the best performance of his career. Lately, he’s had a streak of bad movies including: Mortdecai, Transcendence, The Lone Ranger. Plus Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. He hasn’t really done a good movie since Public Enemies. In which he depicted another gangster, the infamous and notorious John ‘The Jackrabbit’ Dillinger. Black Mass gave Depp the push into reviving his acting career from the grave, and that it did. Depp as Bulger is purely terrifying. If you look into Bulger’s eyes, you will die from fright. His eyes will pierce your heart and rip it into pieces and then some. There’s a scene when Bulger turns something as trivial as a steak recipe into something as serious him going back to Alcatraz. This scene reminds me of the “Funny How?” scene in Scorsese’s Goodfellas due to the build up of tension with Agent Morris in the place of Henry Hill and Bulger playing Tommy. Then the laughter erupts after the joke is revealed.
Bulger is a true psychopath, killing at will without remorse and with much ferocity. He takes what he believes is his without question. There’s a scene between him and Marianne Connolly that I thought was going to end with him having his way with her. The movie shows that he is a man without limits and I don’t think rape is off his radar. He has shown himself capable of breaking all numbers of laws including murder, torture, narcotics, extortion. He’s pretty much done everything. Depp is a ruthless tyrant, killing everyone and anyone who gets in his way including women as we saw with Deborah Hussey (Juno Temple).
What makes it worse is that Whitey is loved by everyone in the local community. He’s a Southie boy and everyone has known each other since they were kids. He even helps a sweet old lady with her bags into her house despite being this killing machine. Depp’s character evolves after he loses his son and mother. The darkness descends around Whitey as he now has nothing to lose. He becomes ice-cold and remorseless and a true psychopath is born.
Cumberbatch (12 Years A Slave) and Edgerton’s (The Gift) performances were on point. They were playing Billy Bulger and corrupt FBI agent, John Connolly. Billy was careful as he was in a position of power, state senator, in fact. He couldn’t be seen to be associating with Whitey’s business. What began as an alliance, became very lucrative for John and he began to get more ostentatious after he had beaten the Italians. It was noticed by everyone. He was getting flashy, buying new suits and buying his wife new things including a new kitchen. He was attracting too much heat too fast. In the words of James Conway “What’s the fuckin’ matter with you? What – what is the fuckin’ matter with you? What are you, stupid or what?”
The film had great set pieces. My personal favorite being the church scene and when the feds arrested the Angiulos. The movie had great use of lighting and awesome cinematography but what got to me was the musical score. The score towards the end of the movie had a profound emotional impact on me. All great gangster films have a lasting musical number whether that be a score or a soundtrack. Black Mass has one too. Due to the ambience of the film, a score was needed more than a soundtrack. If a soundtrack was used for the whole movie, I think the film would have lost the sinister feel. It would have been more in line with a more mellow gangster flick like Gangster Squad.
In conclusion, this is a movie riddled with corruption and murder but also sheer acts of brutality and political scandal. There were also parts that may be horrific to one person but pleasant to the next. It’s all relative to our own perspectives, opinions and beliefs. Black Mass is number two in my top three movies of 2015. The other two are Kurzel’s Macbeth at number one, and Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs at number three.The acting performances couldn’t be faulted and I would like Depp to expect an acting Oscar nomination for portrayal of this Irish hoodlum, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. I only have one problem with the film and I believe it could have been longer at around two hours and forty minutes if they had included flashbacks from Whitey in Alcatraz but more flashbacks from John and Billy as kids showing what loyalty meant to them in the street culture of Southie.
NB: The sheer brutality of the film was so harsh at times, that I believe that it should rated R (18). It’s so fucking savage.