Boston was where America was born. From John Adams to John F. Kennedy, the city is so rich with history that it has come to be known as The Cradle of Liberty. Yet in Scott Cooper’s film “Black Mass,” Boston is shown in complete darkness, making the city look more like a beacon of crime than a cradle for liberty.
Perhaps the reason why Boston is so engulfed in sin is because of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a small-time gangster from South Boston who uses his position as an FBI informant to become one of the most powerful criminals in the country.
Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bulger, a pale-skinned man with beady blue eyes and a haircut that makes him look more like a cobra than a human. His overall demeanor is of an old primitive world. The character’s movements are serpentine and not at all like his more known persona. Whenever he’s in a room with other people, there is an air that keeps everyone silent, even his confident politician brother played by the always welcome Benedict Cumberbatch.
Bulger’s rise to power is a result of John Connolly (Joel Egerton), a kid from the neighborhood who wants to pay Bulger back for protecting him in school. So determined is Connolly to stop the Italian mob, he begins turning his back to his old pal’s activity, which include introducing drugs to Southie (a term referring to people of South Boston) kids and providing weapons for the Irish Republican Army.
Screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk made effective decisions handling this story. It would’ve been easy to portray Bulger’s rise to power as rags-to-riches. Instead, it is a fall from humanity. After losing his son and mother, Bulger becomes more brutal and hungrier. His friends even notice that he is void of all joy unless he talks about Irish terrorists. Less Henry Hill and Michael Corleone, more the serpent from Genesis and Mephistopheles.
If Bulger is the embodiment of evil, then Connolly is simply the fool. After making the Faustian bargain with Bulger, he begins to change. Though he truly believes that he is a hero, others like the new U.S. Attorney only see him as a pawn in Bulger’s criminal empire. Everyone in the law enforcement community wants to go after Bulger, but Connolly insists that Bulger is more good than bad. It’s no wonder he ends up in prison as an accessory to murder.
Not since “Mean Streets” has there been a film that brought such freshness to an already overworked genre. “Black Mass” is shot from a distance, trying to destroy all intimacy with the story. Effectively, this makes the audience want to lean in and listen.
Now for some reflection: In the film, The Boston Globe breaks the story that Bulger is an FBI informant. Later this year, the film “Spotlight,” about The Globe’s investigation of child abuse in the Catholic Church, will be released. If there is true good in Boston, than it must be The Globe.