In film, Boston has served as an ideal location for gritty mob sagas and morality tales. Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River delved deep into the childhood bonds formed and broken in East Boston. The Town offered a glimpse into Charlestown, the “bank robbery capital of America”, and the destructive nature brought with it. And, in Scott Cooper’s menacing Black Mass, Boston symbolizes the only tie to humanity that notorious criminal Whitey Bulger possesses.
Black Mass traces the rise and fall of notorious criminal turned FBI informant Whitey Bulger, whose operations evolved from small-time business ventures to vast illicit programs spanning the United States as well as Europe. However, by joining forces with the FBI, Bulger was able to eliminate his enemies while being protected from any charges so long as he abided by their one rule, do not murder anyone; but Whitey was not the type to simply play by the rules - and over the course of a brisk two hours, Black Mass showcases the brutality of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang and the consequences of unbridled power.
To capture a man who is currently serving two life sentences and was involved in dozens of murders deaths, it would have been just as easy to portray Whitey as pure evil as it would to romanticize him. However, Johnny Depp - in a riveting performance that proves his best days are far from behind him - portrays Whitey not just as a ruthless man forming a cocoon of violence, but also as someone who loves those dearest to him. It is this duality that creates a perpetual menacing tone; one sees the value Bulger places on loyalty, but also the bloodshed that results from betrayal. Bulger tries to maintain human relationships and bonds even though he does not seem capable. After his son gets in a fight at school, he gives the advice that he should have swung at the bully when no one was looking. Quite simply, Bulger does not know how to express feelings without violent urges. When a family tragedy occurs, Bulger violently lashes out at his son’s mother, threatening her, and hurtling chairs across the room. His demeanor was likewise greatly affected by the passing of his mother and, interestingly enough, Bulger’s exploits only become more aggressive after her death. Through the film, he continues a downward moral spiral while progressing criminally upwards. Moreover, this is not just a farbrication created for cinematic purposes. Bulger himself stated in an interview how remorseful he was for bringing shame upon his entire family.
This is precisely where the script, written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, pounces on the opportunity to add flavor to a familiar biopic structure. Rather than tackling this saga as strictly procedural on the side of law enforcement or Whitey’s Winter Hill gang, the film makes it a point to highlight the relationship between Whitey and Connolly, both self-proclaimed ’Southies’, a relationship that is much more than a professional or a business relationship. It runs deep into the past, from the streets of Southside to their luxurious houses and properties all across the United States.
The term ‘Southie’ as an identity is used innumerably in the film, referring to someone brought up on the streets of south Boston. It is befitting, then, for the film to center just as much on Bulger as his Southie pals, who create a moral stronghold. Joel Edgerton, an underrated gem of an actor, is chameleon-like in his role as John Connolly, the FBI agent who persuades Bulger to join forces in the first place. Rounding out this trio is Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother and state senator, who reinforces this theme of familial loyalty by balking at any notion to divulge information on his brother’s operations.
Together they take Boston, and even the rest of the world, by storm. Whitey’s exploits ranged from the streets of Boston to the lively world of Miami to the militaristic conflicts in Ireland. Whitey is not content to stop. Although a story 'about' Bulger, Black Mass revolves around Connolly and the setting of Boston.
Cooper, who treats Connolly as equally important in screen time and in depth as Bulger, offers a unique perspective on the sprawling saga. This choice pays off as, strangely enough, we feel remorseful for Connolly by the film’s conclusion despite being complicit with a man who has been called a devil. It is this stirring of complex emotions that deems a filmmaker successful.
Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who also collaborated with Cooper on the lackluster yet stylistic Out of The Furnace, highlights the hilly streets, foggy bars, and sheer emptiness of Boston. His works offers a unique parallel to the events of the film, as Bulger is allowed to continue his operations as Connolly and the FBI turn a blind eye. Featuring numerous tracking shots and wide-pans of the local streets and Charles river, the cinematography is haunting and bleak. Cooper’s use of framing is exquisite, particularly in a scene in which Bulger brutally kills someone close to a Flemmi, a member of his gang. After his victim is dead, Bulger tells Flemmi to “Clean up your mess”, and the camera beautifully captures the angst on Flemmi’s face, an angst that simply never goes away.
Much like Jack Nicholson’s character in the Boston-set crime classic The Departed, loosely based on Bulger himself, Bulger did not want to be a product of his environment, but wanted his environment to be a product of him. Certainly, Bulger learned how to live in the manner he does as a child in the streets, but as an adult, played an equally important role in the further desolation of the landscape. One can imagine that he was taught similar lessons about violence and punishment and in a twisted cycle, serves to further perpetuate that. It is not shocking, then, that the streets of Boston in the 70s are portrayed eerily similarly in films such as Black Mass as well as in films set in modern-day Boston.
Ultimately, Black Mass stands as riveting tale of complex men, each using one another for their own beneficence. While never truly breaking from the formulaic biopic structure, Black Mass meets expectations and provides a perfect vehicle for the actors, especially Depp and Edgerton. In a very satiated landscape, Depp may find it difficult to break into the Best Actor Oscar race, but Joel Edgerton deserves praise, delivering to date the finest performance of the year. You’ll come see Black Mass for Depp and the violence, but stay for Edgerton and the chemistry between these ‘Southies’.