The true-crime drama “Black Mass,” released on Sept. 18, depicts the life of James “Whitey” Bulger as a complex and tragic character among his fellow White Hills Gang members.
During the 70s up through the 90s, southern Boston was home to the White Hills Gang, led by notorious criminal Whitey, played by Johnny Depp (“Mordecai”) along with his fellow “Southie” friends Steve “the Rifleman” Flemmi, played by Rory Cochrane (“Argo”) and South Boston native-turned FBI agent John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton (“The Great Gatsby”). Whitey’s brother Billy Bulger, well-known Senator from Boston played by Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock”), also provides a level of governmental favor.
The conflict arises when Whitey uses his old friend Connolly for the immunity Whitey receives for being an informant to the FBI in order to take down the Italian Mafia in Boston. After the Mafia is wiped out, Whitey finds it easy to take what he wants as Connolly covers for him using information from other actual informants.
The human qualities built in Whitey’s character during the introduction was the most interesting part of the film. Sure, he was hot-headed and violent, but not in a particularly sociopathic way. He had a loving wife and cared intensely for his young son and loved his friends and his neighborhood, even having his fellow gang members help the elderly in the area. South Boston had a gang, but they were closer to “West Side Story” than “The Warriors.”
The worst he did in the first act was beat a man nearly to death. From early in the beginning of the second act, we see his personality take a dip into the sadistic, committing brutal and personal acts of vengeance. Of course, the White Hills Gang becomes much more violent in general after they take out the Mafia.
Director Scott Cooper was an interesting choice for adapting the 2001 novel by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, considering his relative inexperience in the movie-making world. Of the four movies he has credits for, two of them were limited releases.
His career exploded into existence after “Wild Heart,” starring Jeff Bridges (“True Grit”), which gained great critical reviews and many academy awards. It would seem as though a veteran crime drama director like Scorcese would elect to tell the story of Whitey Bulger, but the movie does fine as it is, but only fine. The movie is nothing too special. If you like crime drama and more importantly seeing Johnny Depp, you’ll enjoy this.