“If no one sees it, it didn’t happen.”
These were the words Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger lived and thrived by, a philosophy of denial and evasion upon which he built a criminal empire all the while justifying his criminal activity with a survival of the fittest mentality. Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a gripping, entertaining film from first frame to last, chronicles the criminal’s rise to power, told by those who knew him best – his colleagues, his enemies and those he manipulated like so many toys at his disposal. Based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, the film has a familiar narrative arc to it, yet what makes it stand out in a sea of gangster epics are the brilliant performances from the veteran cast that’s been assembled, especially the two leads Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton, who bring life to a pair of men who were more alike than appearances would indicate.
The story is told through a series of flashbacks provided by Bulger’s fellow mobsters, who are seen behind bars, ratting out the man that provided them with more swag and swagger than they knew what to do with. The time is the mid-1970’s and the place is South Boston, a predominantly Irish-American community that takes care of their own, looking at anyone involved in a criminal enterprise as an entrepreneur to be feared. None were more powerful than Bulger, a stone cold killer and unofficial head of the Winter Hill Boys, a ruthless gang that included his right-hand man Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), assassin John Martorano (W. Earl Brown) and low-level lieutenant Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) among others.
Like any organization of power, many on the outside long to be a part of it and that was certainly the case with FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Bulger’s who returns to Boston and seeks to make a name for himself. His plan to do so will kill two birds with one stone – he approaches Bulger with an offer he can’t refuse. If he will provide information that will help the agency take down the Angiulo Family, a growing mob presence in North Boston, he’ll be able to operate as he sees fit while the federal authorities look the other way. No dummy, Bulger takes this deal and runs with it, building a criminal empire throughout the 1980’s that would stretch down the East Coast to Florida.
The drama that plays out here is Shakespearean in nature as Connolly is corrupted not only by the praise he gets from his superiors when this unholy alliance initially bears fruit but by his close proximity to Bulger and the power he wields. The lines between right and wrong blur in the man and Edgerton does an exceptional job showing Connolly’s gradual transformation from good to evil. Watch how the physicality of his performance, the way in which he speaks and the look in his eyes slowly changes over the course of the film and you see an actor fully engaged in bringing authenticity to his character. It’s an astounding turn that will likely garner Edgerton a Best Supporting Oscar nomination.
Sure to be recognized by the Academy as well will be Depp, who fully transforms himself into an amoral beast, incapable of mercy or compassion. With his icy cool blue eyes sunken deep in his head and his ever-receding hairline, the actor takes on a skeletal appearance, the embodiment of death itself. While physical transformations are nothing new for Depp, the difference here is that his character is firmly based in reality. There are no unnecessary affectations at play here and there’s never a moment when his movie star persona peeks from behind the veil. Depp gives a fully immersive performance that may be the best work he’s done, the key being that it’s grounded in authentic human behavior, requiring the actor to dig deep for sincere emotion, all of which he displays on the screen to magnificent effect.
If the film has a fault it is that it skimps on details where Bulger’s personal life is concerned. Early on, we see him interact with Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson), a woman who gave birth to his only son who dies tragically young. It’s implied that this death as well as that of his mother had a profound effect on Bulger, skewing his moral universe. While there’s surely some validity to this, the man was involved with other women (Sienna Miller filmed scenes as one of Bulger’s ex-girlfriends that were cut entirely) and seeing his interactions with those away from his criminal life would have helped create a more complete portrait of the man.
Still and all, Black Mass proves to be an engrossing examination of the corrupting influence of not only power but of personality as Bulger’s aura was such that he was able to tempt weaker men with the promise of the sort of life he had, all the while making it seem glamorous and justifiable. What those such as Connolly failed to realize was that in order to succeed as Bulger did, they had to be void of conscience, a quality that thankfully few men truly possess.