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Black Mass Review

By Lora Grady

For Bostonians, the name James "Whitey" Bulger is inextricably linked to the narrow, provincial clannishness and occasionally brutal violence of the city's South Boston neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s.  Bulger grew up in local housing projects and went from streetwise kid to neighborhood thug to hardened criminal, ultimately rising in the ranks of one of the city's Irish gangs to become a murderously ruthless mob boss.  He oversaw extensive and lucrative drug trading and extortion rackets, and managed a crew of thugs who murdered rivals with alacrity and disposed of bodies in basements and marshes throughout the Boston area.  That he operated unchecked while also functioning as an FBI informant, and while his brother Billy simultaneously presided over the Massachusetts state senate, are two nearly unbelievable but nonetheless true elements of the story.

"Black Mass", the film from director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart"), is based on the book of the same name by Boston Globe crime reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, and it's a harrowing look back at Bulger's reign over the Boston underworld.  Through the framework of the spare, chillingly matter-of-fact testimony of former Bulger associates Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), and John Martorano (W. Earl Brown), the film presents a world of intricate family and neighborhood connections and infinite gradations of good and evil.  It's punctuated by outbursts of shocking violence, and overseen by a man who seems to win by acting like he has nothing to lose.  Maybe that's Bulger's appeal - though it's never quite made clear, as the film doesn't spend much time exploring his motivations.  It's more of a play-by-play of Bulger's rise to power, his various crimes, his connections with local FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), and his escape from Boston just ahead of a federal arrest warrant in the mid-1990s.  For Bostonians, "Black Mass" will play like a highlight reel of the Bulger saga, and a discordantly affectionate tour through the seedy 70s in Southie.


Viewers who aren't from the New England area and didn't grow up with some version of Bulger in their personal lexicon - as either an uber-regional boogeyman, a cynically-cited example of police and government corruption, or a semiotic of the impossible (E.g., "A Red Sox post-season this year is about as likely as the FBI finding Whitey Bulger") - may have some trouble following the story threads in "Black Mass".  Dealing with factual material of course places limits on storytelling, but the script doesn't do much to help neophyte viewers sort out the morass of Irish names, the various ethnic rivalries, or Bulger's tangle of illegal business dealings.  Connections aren't clarified up front, so for some time it is unclear why FBI agent John Connolly - who in fact grew up with the Bulger brothers - reaches out to Whitey about becoming an informant and fights to protect him from prosecution even as he murders criminal rivals and occasional unlucky bystanders.

That oversight is unfortunate, because Joel Edgerton, as Connolly, turns in a stellar performance.  He's got a whiny bravado that's tempered by an occasional touch of introspection, and when he declares late in the film that he believes in loyalty, well, you actually believe him.  Much of "Black Mass" is about exactly what you see on the surface, but there is a scene when Connolly calls on Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) to influence the FBI on Whitey's behalf and though their dialogue is brief, there's a whole unspoken story between them of ambition, social class, misguided allegiances, and the power of blood connections.  It's an elegantly layered moment in a film that's not much given to reflecting on the story being told; rather, it's most often about "just the facts, ma'am."

Mr. Edgerton not only turns in the most interesting performance in "Black Mass", he also accomplishes a flawless Boston accent.  There's not a single note out of place.  As Whitey Bulger, Johnny Depp doesn't fare quite as well with the local speech, but his portrayal is eerily effective.  Mr. Depp deftly captures the dangerously mercurial nature that intimidated associates and enemies alike and kept Mr. Bulger one step ahead of the authorities for so many years.   Also worth noting is Rory Cochrane's turn as Steve "the Rifleman" Flemmi; he's a hitman with questionable judgement and poor impulse control, but Mr. Cochrane finds moments of emotional vulnerability that come as a surprise amidst the careless violence.

"Black Mass" is always interesting, often shocking, and unquestionably morally disturbing.  It's also uneven, lacks consistent momentum, and feels longer than its two-hour running time.  Time will tell where the film will place in the Boston crime pantheon, which includes such entries as "The Town", "The Boondock Saints", "Mystic River", and of course, "The Departed".  "Black Mass" won't come close to displacing the 2006 Scorcese classic, but the two films share enough DNA that they are bound to make for a fascinating double-bill someday.

What did you think?

Movie title Black Mass
Release year 2015
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary A harrowing look back at the crimes of Whitey Bulger, though non-Bostonians may need help sorting out the story.
View all articles by Lora Grady
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