‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new gangster movie Black Mass presents an exciting, though eerie, look at the strange partnership between gangsters and the FBI in Boston that dominated the underworld for several decades. The movie uses tricks and techniques familiar to us from previous gangster films, but the strange partnership that perverted justice for decades provides a fascinating new twist.
Jimmy Bulger (calling him “Whitey” to his face could get you punished) was a nasty low-level gangster based in “Southie,” the Irish district of Boston. Bulger (Johnny Depp), when we first see him, is both vicious and charming. He kills casually but plays cards with his mother regularly, constantly complaining that she is cheating. We see the tragic death of his son, and then his mother. At that point, we almost feel like he’s a good guy. But in the middle of all this, FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up with him, offers him a deal: If he informs for the FBI, they will protect him.
Connolly is actually the pivotal character. As Bulger gives him information on the Mafia, both of them increase their power. But Connolly gradually changes; the information he reports as given by his “informant” seems to echo information given by snitches to other agencies. He vacations with Bulger. He covers up criminal activity, and even provides the name of snitches to the gangster. In return, he gets enough money for a better house, is able to dress better, and is promoted. He does not change even after Bulger threatens his wife (Julianne Nicholson). And, in the end, he is perhaps the gangster’s most solid supporter.
Not everyone in the FBI office was as willing as Connolly, but he was able to provide victories. The stress on the FBI men as they struggled, at least in the film, helped define the corruption. They knew that they were doing wrong and felt bad about it. Unfortunately, in real life, they did far worse. One of the characters shown, Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), murdered a man in the 1960s, and the FBI framed four men for the killing. Two were eventually released after more than 30 years in prison; the other two died behind bars. The courts awarded the men and their estates more than $100 million.
The acting was excellent. Depp was better, more powerful and ferocious than he has been in decades. His career has recently focused on strange, over-the-top but charming characters. Using some evil-looking contact lenses and a lot of makeup, he is transformed into the mean, vicious killer. Edgerton is excellent in the pivotal role. He seems not to ever understand that standing up for an old friend when the friend is vicious could ever be wrong.
Benedict Cumberbatch is exceptionally good in the small, important role of Bulger’s brother, a powerful politician. He managed many clever character bits in just a little bit of screen time. Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s girlfriend stole several scenes from Depp, and Nicholson was effective as Connolly’s wife. The FBI men, particularly David Harbour, were also well-played. Cochrane had a particularly effective scene as he watched his boss commit a very close-to-home murder.
This is a good second-line gangster film. It does not match up with some of the great Martin Scorsese films, much less my real favorite, The Godfather. The viciousness is there, but Bulger gradually becomes too one-dimensional. After a time, the movie is all about killing and not much else. In The Godfather, we saw the power of family, the strength of the top leaders, and wanted more.
Unfortunately, despite the initial complexity shown of Bulger’s character, he becomes more and more a simple villain, not nearly as smart as he might be, simply just protected by a corrupt FBI man. This limits the movie’s power. Even worse, some of the places where a dramatic confrontation might take place are overlooked. The arrest of a Mafia leader is shown in a 15-second shot of a man being led into a limousine. We never see Connolly’s wife telling him about Bulger’s threats; instead, we just see the FBI man locked out of his house.
Director Scott Cooper and the writers avoided some of the major dramatic moments and weakened the film. But the film itself was well-done and certainly worth seeing.