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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Black Mass



"Did he take you trick or treating?" asks the frightened, suspicious Marianne Connolly (Julianne Nicholson) of her husband, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). She, like the audience, is trying to suss out just exactly what lies behind the unwavering, destructive loyalty her husband has to one James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp), John's friend since childhood, personal hero, and the most notorious crimelord in South Boston. When we first meet Whitey in director Scott Cooper's stately, arresting Black Mass, he admonishes one of his lieutenants for repeatedly sticking his "fat, filthy fingers" in the shared peanut bowl at their local dive bar. We think for a moment maybe Whitey Bulger's not such a bad guy, a criminal with a moral code, perhaps. Soon, we meet John Connolly, newly minted and seemingly heroic FBI agent with big plans to take down the Italian mafia in Boston's North End. It doesn't take Black Mass long to violently blow both those preconceptions out of the water. Whitey and Connolly are two corrupt sides of the same coin, and their unholy "alliance" would sink the city of Boston into a real-life mire of murder and crime in the 1970s and 1980s, the aftershocks of which still makes headlines today.

By the admission of his own people, who were arrested and plea bargained to turn state's evidence against Whitey, James Bulger was a small time player who served 9 years in Alcatraz and ran the Winter Hill Gang in South Boston. "Suddenly, he was a kingpin." Black Mass details how Whitey's rapid rise to power occurred when he was approached by his boyhood friend Connolly to be an informant to the FBI. "I ain't no rat," Whitey declares. (He would later be at pains to justify to his people how what he did wasn't being a rat when the truth ended up as a front page expose in the Boston Globe.) But Whitey had a plan, enabled by Connolly, who promised him non-interference from the FBI as long as he provided the intel they needed to bring down the Cosa Nostra. The one condition: Whitey can't kill anybody. This was simply too much to ask and Bulger had no intention and was incapable of adhering to this request. Whitey's intel was valuable but came peacemeal, while his true activities -- consolidating his personal power over the rackets in Boston -- were covered up by Connolly. Meanwhile, Whitey was killing whomever he saw as a threat, be it rival gangsters, businessmen opposed to his interests in World Jai-Alai in Miami, snitches who betrayed him, or even teenage prostitutes. Whitey was a brazen executioner; killing his enemies in broad daylight and with his bare hands. Caught in the middle of this quagmire between his criminal brother and his corrupt federal agent friend was Whitey's brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), then the State Senator for Massachusetts.

Johnny Depp, whose ghostly white contact lenses and balding visage make him resemble the ancient vampiric look of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker's Dracula, delivers a mesmerizing performance of pure malevolence. Depp plays Whitey as a remorseless psychopath in Black Mass, perhaps too stripped of recognizable humanity, especially in the second half of the movie after the deaths of his beloved mother and young son. Edgerton's Connolly devolves into a comical, transparent farce of a lawman as his fellow FBI agents played by Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott grow suspicious of his connection to Whitey and the new federal prosecutor (Corey Stoll) makes it his mission to bring down Bulger, and Connolly along with him. Eschewing the operatic crescedos of Martin Scorsese's similar The Departed a decade ago, the equally star-studded Black Mass unspools its lurid tale of crime with somber intent, though both films share the almost gleeful impact of sudden gory violence. In the end, we know the good guys ultimately won, and James "Whitey" Bulger, on the run for 12 years as an FBI Most Wanted fugitive, was captured in Santa Monica, returned to Boston, and is now serving two consecutive life sentences. Connolly, arrested and imprisoned for his part in the scandal, refused to testify against Whitey. Truer BFFs there never were.