Director Scott Cooper’s crime drama spotlights career criminal James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, leader of the Irish-American Winter Hill Gang in South Boston, spanning his most prominent years as the kingpin in South Boston’s crime world.
Black Mass, based on the book of the same name, depicts the key events surrounding the infamous narrative of Bulger’s organization; racketeering, murder, deception, drugs, and the FBI’s involvement with and shielding of ‘Whitey,’ his Winter Hill Gang, and the ‘unholy alliance’ John Connelly formed with his awed childhood hero ‘Whitey’ Bulger.
Cooper’s film explores both the activities of the gang, and of John Connelly’s and other FBI agent’s enabling of horrific crimes under the pretense of the ‘greater good,’ and sheds light on the man behind the myth – ‘Whitey’ Bulger to those who knew him as Jimmy; father, son, even friend.
However, the films presentation of the unraveling of Connelly’s alliance and perceived friendship with the man he knew as a child, (‘you played me Jimmy’), merely consolidates the viewer’s perspective of the man who ruled Boston with an iron fist.
A fascinating story of childhood loyalty exploited, the twisted and blurred boundaries of business relationships and family - Bulger’s senator brother Billy Bulger, played by a surprisingly convincing Benedict Cumberbatch. The consequences are played out clearly, particularly for Connelly of believing, supporting, and protecting your childhood friend over believing the facts surrounding you, presented by the very organization designed to protect the victims of the protected Bulger.
‘Interviews’ with Whitey’s partner, Stephen Flemmi, The Winter Hill’s hit man Johnny Martorano, and other associates add a retrospective narrative, allowing us clearer insight into the inner workings of the gang, further elaborating the scenes shown. However, even with this retrospective narrative there is a sense that the viewer would benefit from prior knowledge of the players in South Boston and the scenario playing out on the screen.
The light shines further than simply just highlighting the violence of Bulger, the action, the crime, and the guns running the streets; the film demonstrates a deeper understanding of man, ignoring the ease of portraying the infamous Irish-American mobster as absolute evil, and attempts to move past the already known – we know that ‘Whitey’ Bulger was a vicious criminal who was not above murder. However, what this film strives to do is create a more holistic image of a man we all think we know.
To some extent Cooper achieves this; Dakota Johnson, cast as Lindsey Cyr, Bulger’s girlfriend for twelve years and mother of his son, presenting a previously unexplored portion of both Bulger’s life, and psychological state. She does this with an unexpected level of class on screen: her dialogue with Depp, who loses himself entirely within this character – even diehard Johnny fans are going to have trouble fancying him in this - holds its own, both actress and character refuse to be outdone.
The unfortunate thing about adding an emotional dimension to a monster however, is that we don’t necessarily care, we feel a very reluctant sympathy for a psychopath over the death of his young son, even though Depp attempts to convince us beyond a doubt of his character’s anguish, the scene asks too much of the audience – we cannot feel sorry for a man who merely feeling the sorrow the families of his victims feel - not even Johnny Depp can make us feel that.
Black Mass is now showing at FACT - click here to book tickets.