Reel To Reel: Black Mass
Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon
Red Flags: Graphic bursts of intense bloody violence, strong language
Irish gangster James "Whitey" Bulger had a lock on Boston's underworld in the late 1970's and 1980's largely because an FBI agent protected him and used him as an informant, allowing Bulger's criminal enterprise to grow nearly unchecked and failing to prevent several murders. Those included the high-profile whacking of former Tulsa businessman Roger Wheeler, a case still pending in the courts even as Bulger serves out two consecutive life sentences in prison after years on the lam. Black Mass is a chilling look at what the feds got for their end of the bargain.
Most of that chill comes from Johnny Depp's performance as Bulger, a tailspin of evil as the picture unfolds. Even in his rare lighter moments -- like a scene where Bulger explains to his son how to beat up another kid without getting caught -- Depp's Bulger is still icily dark. He surrounds himself with equally evil, foul-mouthed henchmen who provide the narrative backbone of the film in FBI interviews. But in Whitey's world, it's not crime; it's about standing up for the "Southies," those in South Boston's working-class mean streets now getting squeezed as the Italian mafia moves in on them.
Fellow Southie, friend of Bugler and FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton) knows Whitey is facing a turf war. He also needs something to make a case on the Angiulo Brothers, whom the feds know about but can't seem to bust. Connolly makes a blockbuster proposition to his bosses: let Bulger become a high-level confidential informant on the Angiulos and get what they need to run them out of Boston. Bulger reluctantly agrees, not considering it ratting or "informing" but improving business by running out competition.
Bulger has to abide by some simple ground rules, if that's even possible: no drugs, no murders. Those rules soon get clipped as Bulger's life deteriorates, starting with the death of his son. Connolly also finds himself pulled deeper into darkness as he tries to cover up his informant's escalating criminal escapades and keep his bosses off his back. As you might expect, so much of Bulger's life isn't on the screen, including the years laying low from the feds until they finally caught him in California in 2011, living under another name and looking like a frail old man rather than a powerful mob boss.
Black Mass will remind you of two other films, both by Martin Scorsese: The Departed, inspired by Bulger's life, and GoodFellas, which the film mimics at certain points, even including its own version of the famous "You Think I'm Funny" scene. Those two films had style and a darkly comic sense of how banal mafia life could be at times. Black Mass is all business, and although it makes a token attempt at Bulger's domestic issues, they're mainly there to convince us Bulger had only sparse humanity.
I kept watching Edgerson as Agent Connolly in his pompadour and wondered if he was looking for a role on The Sopranos instead of mob information. His protection of Bulger became a real-life embarrassment for the FBI, a finer point the film nearly overlooks. Like Bulger, the agent sees himself also protecting his friends and fellow Southies, a rationalization that drives his agenda.
The main reason to see Black Mass is for Depp's brilliant performance, calculated and cruel. He attempted to meet with Bulger himself in the preparation for the role. He had to settle for fine tuning from Bulger's lawyer. Bulger still isn't ratting, even after all this time, not even on himself.