Any film that begins with a tape recorder sputtering out ” I am not a rat” and goes on to tell the story of the biggest informant -FBI -scandal in U.S. history lets you presume that codes of honor can be tricky. Based on the Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill’s NYT’s best seller, ” Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI, and A Devil’s Deal”, Director Scott Cooper does his best with a great cast and a weak,understated screenplay.
Shot in South Boston, this film is full of dark bars, grimy alleyways and industrial river sites. “There is trouble outside” becomes visceral. “Throw the first two punches” the street mantra. The music is heavy-handed and evocative of other crime-ridden films. See “Black Mass” for the acting not for the cinematography. Though there are two exceptional camera shots: one an overhead pan of Jimmy reclining with his hands behind his head. We long to get into that psyche; yet, we really never do. The other memorable photo still captures Joel Edgerton as Jimmie’s FBI friend, John Connolly. His headshot photographed against six-inch -flowered, kitchen wallpaper highlights his personal allegiances. His wife loses. And as that wife, Juliette Nicolson is amazing. Her Marianne is full of depth. I wish the screenplay gave her more time. When Jimmie knocks on her locked bedroom door and creepily puts his hands around her neck. We can feel that touch. We can understand her wish to scream. Her control is lost only in her brimming eyes. Depp, Nicolson, and Edgerton all give Oscar-worthy performances. It is in this threatening scene where “Whitey’s” evil is best portrayed. Marianne knows Jimmie has changed her husband. That “southie -kid” loyalty never leaves John Connolly. He goes to prison for forty years without testifying against his psychopathic childhood friend.
Johnny Depp’s transformation as James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of The Winter Hill Gang is make-up-award worthy,too. The honed nose,the blue eyes and the balding-scalp-overlay give a mesmerizing effect. Only in one scene did I catch a glimpse of a rubber-neckline give away. Depp’s acting is a stunner,yet the viewers get no real insight into this crime boss who kills with bare-handed abandon in broad daylight,once in front of a full recess playground. Depp’s voice is raspy,deep, and cool. When he instructs his five -year -old son, it is to say,” It is not what you do, but where and when. If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”
This is the man who becomes a top echelon FBI informant,code named “Charlie”. Jimmie,with friend Connolly’s aid, is in alliance with the Feds to bring down the Angiulo Brothers,a Mafia family. This is the “Devil’s Deal”: the FBI allows Whitey Bulger ,small time gangster, to become a crime kingpin to “bring down the Italians”. With two sympathetic notes shown after his son’s Reye Syndrome death and in his gin rummy card game with his mother, Bulger goes on to become the crime lord of Boston and Miami rackets. His admonition to “never hand me a bag full of money in public. I’ll whack anyone, anywhere” is proven true in ghastly car -window -blood splatter over and over again. Bulger uses some of his filthy lucre to buy weapons for the IRA. Our FBI’s “professional criminal consultant” lives by getting and giving loyalty to his friends until they do something he considers stupid.
One telling scene has Jimmie parading his power as “cock of the walk”.He asks for the recipe of a particularly pleasing steak marinade; and though it is described as a secret family recipe, it is given to him anyway. Bulger chides that “just saying can get you buried real fucking quick”.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Jimmie’s brother and U.S. Senator, and former Chancellor of The University of Massachusetts. Kevin Bacon is John Connolly’s (Joel Edgerton) FBI boss. Again,the cast of “Black Mass” could not have been better. The movie should have been. It seems incongruous that a man known for extortion,racketeering and murder, a man who utters dictates of “pull out his fucking teeth and bury him next to the whore” would be last filmed in a candlelit church with no more insight into his mind.