Directed by Scott Cooper
Written by Jex Butetrworth
and Mark Mallouk
James Bulger Johnny Depp;
John Connolly Joel Edgerton;
William Bulger Benedict Cumberbatch;
Stephen Flamini Rory Cochrane;
Charles McGuire Kevin Bacon;
Kevin Weeks Jesse Plemons;
Brian Halloran Peter Sarsgaard;
Lindsey Cyr Dakota Johnson;
Fred Wyshak Corey Stoll;
John Morris David Harbour.
"Take your shot but make it your best. 'Cause I get up, I eat ya. "
- James Bulger
Why not check out other gangster flicks
Written by Bada Bing
(2015) - Cross Creek Pictures
Black Mass does not ask us to understand Whitey Bulger’s evil. Black Mass does not seek to glamourise Whitey Bulger’s evil. Black Mass does not even attempt to explain Whitey Bulger’s evil. Black Mass simply asks us to accept Whitey Bulger’s evil and that is from where the visceral thrill of this gangster flick comes.
Scott Cooper’s movie depicts James J Bulger as the devil incarnate and Johnny Depp plays him as Lucifer himself let loose in South Boston. There are a few moments where there is the potential to see the human side of this vicious mob boss, such as the death of his young son or the loss of his elderly mother both of whom he clearly doted upon. However, any crumb of compassion we might have for the character is quickly swept away with the vicious bile he dishes out to the mother of his child when she suggests turning off the life support machine keeping their brain dead child alive. Or even the way he looms over the funeral of his mother from an upper balcony like a predatory ghoul lurking in the shadows.
There is a tangible aura surrounding the character that is chilling, predatory,malevolent and plenty more adjectives usually reserved for a monster in a horror movie – and that’s because that is what he is. There is a scene, one of my favourites in fact, where Bulger seems to swoop out of the sun,like a fallen angel, hidden behind the glare of the low sun, to gun down Brian Halloran (an associate who knew too much) with a semi-automatic M1 Carbine in a busy parking lot. The score is more akin to music from a horror movie – and it fits perfectly. Similar music plays when he strangles the life out of Deborah Hussey, a prostitute who also knew too much about him.
The movie is based on the true crime book Black Mass by Boston Globe journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, both of whom were also consultants on the film and made brief cameos. Their book lays bare the dark truth behind the deal made between the FBI and the gangster that allowed him to commit inexplicable crimes and rise to become one of the most dangerous mobsters in US history, all under the protective cloak of the federal government.
The film follows the gangster movie genre template of choice - the rise and fall of a crime boss. It spans the period 1975-1995 and focuses on specific episodes of his life chronicled by his underlings as they chirp like canaries to the FBI. It begins in the mid-seventies with Bulger at the helm of the Winter Hill Gang which controlled organised crime in South Boston,but is being squeezed out by the New England franchise of La Cosa Nosta; the Patriarca Family. The Angiulo Brothers front the family’s operations in North Boston and they’re expanding aggressively and represent a genuine threat to both the gang’s hold over criminal activity in Southie and also to Bulger’s life.
Enter John Connolly, an ambitious federal agent returning to Boston and assigned to the organised crime division and he also happens to be a native of Southie. The FBI agent swaggers into town, with his spurs jangling, reaping the glory of successful stints in the San Francisco and New York offices and takes it upon himself to bring down the Mafia in Boston.
Connolly spent his formative years on the same playground as Jimmy and Billy Bulger – Billy the elder Bulger brother is now Senator William Bulger – yeah, that’s right -the brother of the underworld king of South Boston just happens to be the most powerful politician in the state of Massachusetts – this is beginning to develop a distinctive Shakespearean quality. Growing up together as ‘Southie’ kids, Connolly and Bulger share bonds tying them to the same street loyalty with a passionate dislike for the Italians and he uses this history in an attempt to illicit Bulger’s cooperation with providing information that can be used to help bring down the Boston mafia.
Whitey despises rats and demonstrates this on several occasions in the most grotesque way possible. However, buoyed by the idea of the FBI turning a blind-eye to his criminal activities, while the government eliminates his rivals, he relents to becoming an FBI informant. Connolly quickly comes to realise though that when you dance with the devil, the devil picks the tune. A canny Bulger systematically feeds the FBI diddly-squat, all the while he maximises the impunity afforded to him by the feds to expand his empire.
Connolly all the while is spinning plates trying to keep his superiors happy, who were never convinced by his ill-conceived plan in the first place, while at the same time trying to reign in Bulger. He goes to greater and greater lengths to create the impression that the alliance is working, meanwhile he is being dragged further and further into Whitey’s world. His wife even begins to notice that he’s walking and talking differently, wearing flashy suits and sporting expensive watches and quite frankly acting more like a mafioso than an agent of the law.
While it can be said that Depp’s character becomes more vicious as the movie progresses, the true journey is Connolly's as we watch Joel Edgerton' character slowly evolve from being a well-intentioned (if not over ambitious) federal agent into a mini gangster himself as he is caught up in Bulger’s web.
In a movie that is constructed in short chapters, as opposed to a flowing narrative, each designed to showcase the unsettling nature of Whitey Bulger, the best comes during a dinner at Connolly’s house. In a scene that pays homage to the great Joe Pesci scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liota’s Henry Hill is unsure whether his sociopathic mobster friend is breaking his balls or is about to kill him, FBI agent John Morris is similarly unnerved when Bulger makes him divulge a secret family recipe. This exchange around the table was in the trailer (making it one the best movie trailers I’ve seen), but what follows is even more terrifying. Connolly’s wife fakes an illness to escape the ‘social gathering’; she’s appalled by Bulger and she’s deeply disturbed at the effect he’s having on her husband. Bulger excuses himself from the table and goes upstairs to see her and Johnny Depp, in this scene more than any other,succeeds in chilling you to the bone. It’s an excellent example of how a few well-chosen words and gestures, when delivered in the manner in which Depp does can be infinitely more menacing than any scene with guns or violence.
Black Mass like a lot of gangster films examines loyalty and the contractions that play out when a little pressure is applied. Bulger goes to great lengths to show us just what he thinks about rats and shows no remorse in killing those who are disloyal; or even if he thinks they may be disloyal. As it turns out, and the principle reason why this is a fascinating story, it is Bulger who is the biggest rat of the lot and can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Goodfella Henry Hill in this respect – although he rationalises it as a business opportunity to make it sound less like he’s an informer. He may be correct, but doesn’t every mobster who ‘turns’ rationalise it in the same manner; they say they’re doing it to protect themselves; or protect their family or some other reason to make themselves think they are different to all the other two-bit punks who sell out their fellow brothers-in-arms.
The few scenes that do not include Bulger follow Connolly’s graceful story arc as we see him attempt to convince everyone, his superiors, his wife, hell… even himself that Whitey is not the murderous outlaw everyone thinks he is. His plan, which more through good-fortune than anything else, does yield some positive results, but the house of cards he builds on the back of a sociopathic gangster inevitably comes toppling down and he takes the brunt of the fallout, while Bulger famously goes on the lam for 16 years and is only bumped off the no.1 spot on the FBI’s most wanted list by Osama Bin Laden.
If the movie is disappointing in any aspect then it’s the failure to make the most of the star-studded talent at Cooper’s disposal. I can’t speak for everyone, but I was certainly hoping for more from Benedict Cumberbatch; Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson,Jesse Pelmons and Corey Stoll. Not that any of them gave anything less than a great performance, but they’re all reduced to mere background characters. I was hoping to avoid falling in to the clichéd trap of comparing Black Mass to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, but I shall do so on this singular point. Scorsese in his Boston gangster flick was able to use the ensemble cast a lot more effectively than Cooper has on this occasion. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon were the undoubted stars of the picture but you never felt Mark Walberg, Martin Sheen, Jack Nicolson, Ray Winston or Alec Baldwin were wasted or underused. As I understand it Black Mass was cut back from 3 hours to just 2 in the editing room so perhaps we’re seeing a different movie to that which Cooper had planned to make and if this is the case then I would dearly love to see the director’s cut. After all when Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America was butchered from a 4 hour masterpiece to a 2 hour incoherent mess in the editing room, audiences were left confused and underwhelmed. It was only fully appreciated when seen in its original intended form.
In a saturated genre, new mob movies find themselves judged not on their own merits, but on how they compare to the two undeniable monoliths of the gangster film genus The Godfather and Goodfellas. On one hand I can understand the need to compare, but on the other it’s strikes me as lazy journalism. Should Black Mass be dismissed just because it’s not as good as Goodfellas? Not for me. When making a genre movie they key question that needs to be asked is does this movie add anything new? And the answer to this when it comes to Black Mass is a resounding yes! Here’s a true story about one the most dangerous and vicious mobsters in the history of America, who grew from a two-bit hoodlum in South Boston all thanks to a dirty deal struck with the US government.
As a gangster movie, Black Mass is one of the best to be released in the past decade. A large part of this is down to Johnny Depp. He digs deep and gives the role absolutely everything he’s got. It’s a haunting performance of a charismatic, ice-cold killer and he underplays the role perfectly so that every look or gesture is as powerful as any action. He dominates every scene, even those he’s not in and after the movie has ended he still affects your thoughts. It’s impossible to forget his steely blue eyes or to shake his demonic laugh from your mind; he is a monster that will haunt your dreams for a while.
Interesting fact: Remember Alex Rocco? He played Moe Green in The Godfather and Jimmy Scalise in The Friends of Eddie Coyle – yeah him! Well he was born Alessandro Petricone and before becoming an actor he was actually a real-life gangster – an associate anyway, to the Winter Hill Gang. It’s said that he was partly responsible for the ‘Boston Irish Gang War’ when the brother of the leader of the rival McLaughlin Gang, George McLaughlin hit on his girlfriend. Many people died in this war. Alessandro Petricone fled to Hollywood and changed his name to Alex Rocco and the rest, as they say, is history!
Don't know if it's worth five dollars, but it's pretty fuckin' good
Available to buy
from GangsterFlick Etsy store:
Most Notable Gangster Moment:
Whitey, under the pretense of helping prostitute Deborah Hussey, lures he to a deserted house and strangles her with his bare hands.
Body Count: 9 (nine) detailed breakdown to follow...
Whitey Bulger uses a .30 caliber semi-automatic M1A1 Carbine to gun down Brian Halloran
Whitey is seen using a Smith & Wesson Model 19 Snub Nose
More weapons TBC
254 - that's over 2 per minute.
Whitey picks up Kevin Weeks in a Chevrolet Chevelle and together they go and beat a rival Italian, to a pulp, and leave him for dead.
The Italian's respond by killing a member of Whitey's gang who is sat inside a biege Triumph Bonneville 750.
Whitey and his gang drive a Cadillac Coupe DeVille. They are seen getting out and talking to the old lady carrying her shopping.
Brian Halloran is in a Chevrolet Citation when Whitey arrives to kill him.
More vehicles TBC
Black Mass Gallery