If you’ve already seen “The Departed”, Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award- winning film loosely based on the Whitey Bulger story or the excellent documentary by Joe Berlinger, “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” you might ask if there’s room for just one more film about the notorious criminal who wreaked havoc in South Boston during the 1970s and early 1980s. The answer is that “Black Mass,” director Scott Cooper’s new entry in the Bulger pantheon, fits the bill pretty well, even if you’re already familiar with most of the facts regarding the turf war between Bulger’s Winter Hill gang and their notorious rivals, the Angiulo brothers.
Black Mass makes its case against Whitey in the style of a police procedural. It begins with flashbacks set forth in a series of FBI interviews of two Bulger associates, right-hand man Steve Flemmi and neophyte Kevin Weeks (who unfortunately end up with light sentences due to their cooperation in bringing Bulger down).
Bulger’s brutality is highlighted almost immediately after he takes revenge on an associate who beat up Weeks up in a confrontation outside a local pub. Soon afterward he murders one of his own enforcers, Tommy King, who disses him while intoxicated inside a favorite watering hole. Johnny Depp finally finds his stride in a welcome bad boy role as Whitey and the script wisely highlights a confounding kind side– Whitey stops to help carry packages for an old lady in the neighborhood, is attentive to his elderly mother and feels real despair when his young son falls into a coma. He’s not all that kind to his wife however, by threatening her when she refers in a moment of grief to the dying child as “my son,” and immediately wants to take him off life support.
Bulger the sadistic psychopath is not what makes Black Mass so interesting. It’s really the story of renegade FBI agent, John Connolly, winningly played by Joel Edgerton. Connolly was a childhood friend of both Whitey and brother Billy Bulger, who became president of the Massachusetts State Senate. Connolly really shouldn’t have become an FBI agent in the first place given his close ties to Whitey and disposition toward the criminal life. The FBI ended up giving Connolly free reign to use Whitey as an informant who eventually convinced Whitey to provide the FBI with a wiretap location for the Angiulo brothers. Seduced by Whitey, Connolly invited him over along with his associates, much to the chagrin of his wife Marianne, who soon became decidedly distressed over her husband’s most apparent change in personality.
The tension in the Black Mass plot escalates when Whitey decides to murder the new executive of a Jai Alai arena in Florida who refuses to take kickback money. Whitey pays an associate, Halloran, 20K to keep silent but he ends up going to the FBI who refuse to use his testimony after he refuses a polygraph. After Whitey gets winds of this, Halloran and a friend, are murdered in broad daylight.
The stakes are raised when Bulger questions Flemmi’s stepdaughter prostitute girlfriend whether she revealed anything about the Winter Hill gang to the police. In a great scene, the prostitute, Deborah Hussey, seems convincingly innocent when she answers Bulger’s questions about her police interrogation. But after taking her home, he strangles her in front of Flemmi, who does a good job at hiding how appalled he is at Bulger’s viciousness.
The denouement is set in motion when the informant McIntyre is forced to confess to the rival DEA that he was responsible for the intercepted arms shipment to the IRA, ordered by Bulger. McIntyre is then tortured and murdered by Whitey a la Hannibal Lecter. Pitbull prosecutor Wyshak, along with Connolly associate John Morris, realise that Connolly’s “tips” are a cut and paste job from past reports of low-level informants.
After Morris spills all the beans to two Boston Globe reporters, the ensuing news exposé leads to the collapse of Bulger’s empire and his subsequent exile. Connolly’s arrest is foreshadowed by the scene in which his wife locks him out of their house (preceding this turn of events is the best scene in the film when Whitey both caresses and threatens Connolly’s wife after she refuses to join him and his associates at the dinner table).
Some critics complained about a failure of to show how Bulger’s empire operated—they wanted more scenes involving the shakedowns, etc. Instead what was proffered was simply a short montage. It seems to me that such an abridged gambit was superior to the suggestion of added footage.
All in all, Black Mass is a well-done recapitulation of the story of the twisted relationship between Whitey Bulger and John Connolly. Even if one was familiar with this story from previous attempts at chronicling it, the story as it’s told—a straightforward police procedural of sorts— keeps one interested to the end. There might be little new here but Black Mass is a narrative that flows in an admirable way.