When did you first hear the name Whitey Bulger?
Years ago I was looking at the FBI most wanted list. Wherever I was working at the time had a very tight leash on internet access and one of the few sites we could visit was the FBI's. Another was the CIA's. Really. Important facts I learned that summer: the CIA viewed Canada as mostly harmless and the FBI's number two most wanted person was a gangster named James 'Whitey' Bulger. The head of Boston's Winter Hill Gang had been on the run since 1994. Wanted on a grocery list of charges, including nineteen counts of murder, with some kind of bizarre relationship with the FBI's Boston office and a near mythic violent streak, Bulger seemed more like a fictional character from an airport bookstore crime novel than a real-world person with real-world concerns.
And then The Departed happened. Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello is based on Bulger. Pete Postlethwaite's Fergie Colm in The Town is based on a couple of different Boston gangsters, Whitey Bulger among them. The tv series Brotherhood, the story of a criminal and his politician brother, was based on the Bulger brothers. By the time of his arrest in 2011, Bulger had become more than an old man on the run. He had become legend.
And when did you first hear the name Johnny Depp?
For some of us of a certain age, it was 21 Jump Street. He had already been one of Freddy's first victims in Nightmare on Elm Street and had a small part in Platoon. But 21 Jump Street, that right there made him a star. A mopey, moody, temperamental star who seemed to not only hate being a star but also hated acting. Which made his mopey, moody, temperamental fans love him more. He was just like us, just very, very, very, very good looking. Looking at his IMDB page is like looking at a list of some of the most iconic art films of the past 25 years mixed with some serious commercial successes and some giant bombs that would have destroyed lesser men. Who else could have Edward Scissorhands and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Dead Man and Chocolat and the Pirates movies and Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger on their resume?
So what happens when you take the Whitey Bulger story, with its violence and betrayal and twisted loyalties, and mix it with an eclectic actor who's mainstream success is based on playing a pirate as a combination of Keith Richards, Hunter S. Thompson and Pepe LePew? You get some faith that 2015 will turn out to be a great year for film after all. Sure, folks, we've seen some real wow-that-really-happened disasters so far, what with Fantastic Four and Aloha and Fifty Shades of Turns Out Not To Be The Worst Film of the Year. But any year that can see the release of Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out and Straight Outta Compton and Black Mass is shaping up to be a pretty damn good year.
Black Mass covers roughly 20 years of the Whitey Bulger story, with sporadic narration from Bulger's lieutenants and a flashback structure that is ballsy and slightly insane. Johnny Depp gives one of his strongest performances in years, portraying Bulger not as a monster and not as a sympathetic understandable human but somewhere in between. It must have been tempting to just turn Bulger into a cartoon, the Roadrunner as pure evil. But to play him as an unredeemable king of manipulation, as a human with all too human selfish desires and needs, as a man who wants and wants and wants and takes and takes makes the character real while at the same time nightmarish. The coldness of Depp's performance is something that needs to be experienced to be believed. This is a side of Depp that I've never seen before and it is frightening while being incredibly charismatic at the same time.
The most astounding thing about Black Mass is the performances. Every last one of them is a master class of character creation and acting. From Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey's younger brother, state Senator Billy Bulger, to Kevin Bacon to Adam Scott to Dakota Johnson the talent in this film is amazing. Everyone is at the top of their game. Jesse Plemons gives a strong performance as enforcer Kevin Weeks. Rory Cochrane, as Steve Flemmi, continues to grow as one of the great character actors working today. But the real standout in this film, even among these heavyweights, is Joel Edgerton as Bulger's FBI handler John Connolly. Edgerton deserves all the awards for his work here. Ambitious but without the brains to keep everything from spiralling out of control, streetwise but without the nose to tell him when he's being used, Connolly could have been a character from a Shakespeare play. His rise was dependent on keeping a leash on Bulger. His fall happened when he realized he had never actually held the leash, the collar had been on his neck the entire time.
Black Mass is the kind of film where a senator, an FBI agent, and a gangster sit down for Christmas dinner together, the tension so thick you can hardly breathe watching it. It's the kind of film where whenever anyone approaches Bulger to give him some bad news you just want to yell at the screen, tell them it can wait, it's not worth it. It isn't a perfect film, it won't push Goodfellas out of my happy place. But it is a damn good film.
There is a documentary that, if you're at all interested in the story of Whitey Bulger, you need to watch. It's called Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. It tells the story of Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang with interviews with members of Bulger's inner circle, with archival footage and documents, and, most surprisingly, interviews with the families of Bulger's victims. Not all of Bulger's trail of dead were accomplices or competitors. Some were truly and honestly innocent and were just caught in the storm surge of Bulger's violence. It's a great companion piece to Black Mass and gives substance to some of the nameless who fall to the side as Bulger rises to power. It also pulls back the curtain on some of the Bulger myth and shows the very human jealousies and greed, on the Bulger side and on the FBI side, that destroyed so many lives. Seeing the documentary really helped with my appreciation of Black Mass. Maybe it'll do the same for you.
So, let's wrap this thing up, shall we.
Is Black Mass worth your money and your time, Kellie? Yes, yes, and yes. Depp dials it way back and proves that sometimes less is not only more, it is the stuff that makes your palms sweat as you walk to your car at night in a under lit parking lot. And should you watch Whitey? Why are you still reading this? It's on Netflix, go now and watch it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a man cold to deal with.