24Black Mass is currently playing in theaters. There are some minor spoilers that follow as this is supposedly a true story. I don’t feel that it’s really a spoiler when we’re discussing public figures with public fates. Still, don’t read any further if for some reason you are unaware of how the story ends.
Black Mass (2015) – Rated R
“The true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf.”
“ You were just saying? “Just saying” gets people sent away. “Just saying” got me a nine-year stretch in Alcatraz, you understand? So, “just saying” can get you buried real quick.”
Black Mass is a good overview of the working relationship between childhood friends FBI agent John Connolly and mob boss/informant James “Whitey” Bulger. Director Scott Cooper jumps in after Bulger has served a stint in Alcatraz and Leavenworth (Atlanta too though that is not mentioned).
As is typical of Hollywood telling a ‘true’ story, Black Mass has the basic gist correct but a lot of the facts are wrong or omitted. In the movie, Bulger brings Flemmi in on the FBI arrangement whereas in reality Flemmi had been a FBI informant for almost a decade before Flemmi and Bulger worked together. Catherine Greig, a rather important part of the Whitey Bulger story, was to have been played by Sienna Miller but all of her scenes were cut. Bulger’s other brother is omitted as is Connolly’s brother in the DEA.
Cooper’s previous two films, Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, were marked by star performances by Jeff Bridges and Christian Bale respectively. Black Mass is no different. For all of its pacing and factual flaws, Black Mass has an outstanding (and quite scary) performance by Johnny Depp as Bulger and a wonderfully underplayed one by Joel Edgerton as FBI agent out of his depth Connolly.
The character of Connolly in the film is quite simplified as is his movie fate. The real Connolly is quite a bit more complex (and brighter) and suffers a more complex fate. My guess is that because Connolly is still alive, the producers felt it necessary for legal reasons to ‘vague’ up his involvement in Bulger’s affairs. Certain things are able to be inferred as Connolly’s clothing improves and he has a flashy watch and so forth.
Cumberbatch is welcome but mostly wasted as Senator Billy Bulger as is Kevin Bacon playing frustrated FBI agent McGuire. Dakota Johnson appears briefly as Lindsey Cyr, Bulger’s common-law wife. Peter Sarsgaard adds Brian Halloran to his collection of well-played lowlifes. Finally, an always welcome Corey Stoll appears late in the game as a crusading attorney.
While the film is just pretty good, there is an absolutely chilling scene between Bulger (Depp) and Marianne Connolly (Julianne Nicholson). I think that one scene is the best work that Depp has done in a long time and I could certainly see a nomination come Academy Awards time.
While this is the supposedly true story, it has a healthy dose of fiction. If you want to see a completely fictionalized version, try Martin Scorsese’s The Departed with Jack Nicholson essentially playing Bulger as Frank Costello. The Departed is an absolute classic, itself based on the Chinese Infernal Affairs movies (though it is better than the source material). If you are more interested in Bulger, then go with Black Mass for Depp’s performance.