An Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and Whitey Bulger, One of the Most Notorious Gangsters in U.S. History
Johnny Depp stars as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a notoriously violent criminal from South Boston who lead the Winter Hill Gang during the 70s & 80s. The Anguilo Brothers, who headed the Boston arm of the New England Mafia, have a grip in the north of Boston and rival Bulger’s gang. During this time, FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) seeks the assistance of James Bulger in helping him bring down the Anguilo crime syndicate set up in Boston, who have so far evaded the police and the FBI. Reluctantly, but looking out for his own affairs Bulger agrees to an alliance between himself and the FBI, giving him free reign to advance the fortunes of the Winter Hill Gang.
To date Scott Cooper has now directed 3 films, the 2 before Black Mass are Crazy Heart & Out of the Furnace, both films superb self-contained southern tales. With Black Mass he tackles an entirely bigger beast, with a vast array of personalities weaving in and out of a sprawling period in Boston’s history. As a result the film is not as tightly wound as his previous efforts, but thanks to some first class acting, a brooding score and choice direction it is welcome company is his catalogue of films.
The film opens with close-up questioning between an FBI agent and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), a member of the Winter Hill Gang. It uses this scene as a launch pad in the films exploration of James Bulger’s rise to dominance in Boston in 1975 as it jumps to the introduction of Kevin Weeks into Bulger’s gang and as one of his cohorts. The film uses the same method to progress the story at various points, showing interrogation scenes with gang members Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and John Mortorano (W. Earl Brown). It’s a useful tool in advancing events but unfortunately the characters after some initial scenes, Mortorano and Weeks in particular, fall into the background of the central relationship between Bulger and Connelly. Ultimately though the film is not directly about their story, it is a shame we don’t see more from them because both actors are very memorable in their time on screen. The same can be said for a lot of characters here as they drop in and out of the film as required. The main reason is James Bulger and John Connelly are the leads, and the story is more a portrayal of their relationship and lives at this high pressure time than it is about murder and crime.
The performances by Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton are simply special. They are the Sun of the films universe and everybody else gravitates around them, moving in and out of frame with every rotation in the plot. Despite Johnny Depp being central in all the POS for the film, Joel Edgerton is just as important, his screen time is pretty equal to Depp’s and he commits just as much crime, it may not be visually entertaining crime but its impact is just as powerful. Their performances, especially Edgerton’s as John Connelly are Oscar winning, and Edgerton has catapulted himself to become one of the most promising people in film today.
We’ve already mentioned the qualities of Scott Cooper, but his direction including this film is refreshingly subtle. There are no quick cuts or frantic movement, instead opting for calculated shots and fantastic framing. A scene between Johnny Depp and Dakota Johnson in hospital after the tragic incident involving their son is a great example. A close shot that makes it look like they are in a private room, in their own world opens up into a cold hospital cafeteria at the change of mood in the conversation. It’s direction like this that simply and subtly enhances the film, using more than just emotional music cues and dialogue to convey feelings and tone.
Because of the time period that the film covers, the story is a touch loose as it focuses on significant turning points in the demise and Bulger and Connelly. It doesn’t detract from the quality of the film, but it does give less time to focus on characters involved in the events depicted. The ending of the film may come across sudden, or feel flat but that is down to how the actual events ended rather then a lack of creativity. The quiet exit of his character is quite the contrast to his brutal actions shown earlier, but this is not a glamorous action packed story of cops and robbers.
Black Mass is one of my favourite films this year, with some of the best performances you are likely to see this year too. It’s an interesting and dark walk down the path of Boston’s criminal history, flanked by great direction and stellar acting from a cast list that makes you salivate. The Snooty Ushers fully recommend it, especially for fans of the crime genre.