Like the action/adventure genre, the gangster movie always means a box office draw for Hollywood. One supposes that’s why ever since The Godfather was released, there’s been a never-ending sea of, for all intents and purposes, “copycat” movies, which only increase with each passing year. The latest big-budget one, Black Mass, centers on the tale of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp, who only prefers roles with heavy makeup these days), an Irish-American small-time crook who ends up running all of South Boston a.k.a. Southie.
The means to his meteoric rise to power? Getting in league with an old childhood friend from the neighborhood named John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who now works for the FBI. Connolly’s blind loyalty to Bulger as a result of him “protecting” Connolly as a youth in Southie clouds his judgment even after the original purpose for using him as an informant–to wipe out the Italian mafia in Boston–fades away. But by this time, Bulger has become so ruthless (in part thanks to the loss of his son to Reye’s syndrome and his mother to old age) that he’s gone well out of the bounds of ordinary behavior that the FBI can turn a blind eye to.
His primary associates, Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemmons, who, yes, you might mistake for Matt Damon) and Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown), all end up betraying Bulger in the end in order to reduce their own sentences, a classic mobster move that has been taking place in every portrayal from Goodfellas to The Sopranos since the dawn of gangsterdom and media showcasing it. Then again, Bulger was the one who set the trend for informing in the first place, and didn’t exactly leave any of his cohorts with a warm and fuzzy sentiment toward him (Flemmi in particular had to suffer watching his girlfriend–played by Juno Temple–of the moment get murdered by Bulger).
Nonetheless, the one person who continues to stand by Bulger is Connolly, bound to him by a bizarre and unique Southie allegiance. Even Bulger’s own brother, U.S. Senator William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting a very strange accent indeed), can’t be bothered to save his kin from himself. Much to Connolly’s dismay, he ultimately comes to realize he was a pawn in Whitey’s grand lust for total dominance over the crime underworld, bearing a forty year sentence in prison as the punishment for his devotion to a false saint.
Bulger, on the other hand, manages to walk free for sixteen years before finally being apprehended by the feds. Everyone else he touched had to suffer far more ultimately. Though one imagines there was no greater torture for Bulger than having to leave his kingdom in South Boston behind.
How much we really get into the mind of a criminal like Bulger is subjective to the viewer. Scott Cooper’s direction is smooth and straightforward, a perfect match for Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk’s script, and yet, Black Mass lacks the gumption, signature dialogue and iconography of gangster classics that have preceded it, usually filmed by Martin Scorsese.