‘Black Mass’ chillingly recreates Whitey’s mayhem
By Evan Lips | September 18, 2015, 0:00 EST
The latest Boston-based mobster movie hits close to home this time, as Hollywood portrays arguably the most notorious criminal the Hub has ever produced, James “Whitey” Bulger.
“Black Mass” doesn’t try to get too cute depicting the federal informant, mobster and convicted murderer from South Boston. Johnny Depp, playing the lead role, doesn’t drop his Rs or make references to the “packie” down the block. His FBI handler, John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton, presents the right amount of cockiness, peacocking and puffing out his chest constantly when things are going good and cursing up a storm when they turn bad.
The hard part for the filmmakers may have been telling a story that would engross even though it has an ending everyone already knows, especially those who live inside Route 128.
Yet as they say — it’s all about the journey, not the destination.
Bulger’s infamy has reached Bostonians of nearly all ages. Those who were here during the 1970s most likely heard about the violent exploits of Bulger’s Winter Hill gang. Those who grew up in the 1980s likely remember Connolly’s takedown of the Italian mafia centered in the city’s North End.
If you grew up in the 1990s, you probably remember “Where is Whitey?” headlines after Bulger fled and the subsequent “outing” of his role as an FBI informant working with Connolly. If you grew up in the 2000s, you likely recall wondering if the manhunt would ever end. It was only a few years ago that the manhunt ended with Bulger’s capture in California. For anyone who sees it, this film will most definitely be a memorable event.
Yet having read the book that inspired the movie, by Boston Globe reporters Gerry O’Neil and Dick Lehr, I found myself on edge, wondering when Depp’s Bulger would snap, even when I knew who his next “hit” would be.
It’s clear that director Scott Cooper took pains to create realistic characters and settings. The film opens with Kevin Weeks, a Bulger confidant and chief leg breaker, spilling his guts to the feds. From there the story dances back and forth between various time periods, like a scene set in 1975, when Bulger first meets Connolly.
Bulger is shown tipping back bottles of ginger ale, an example of Cooper’s commitment to detail. Bulger did not drink alcohol or smoke tobacco and was a notorious fitness nut.
Cooper’s gritty South Boston of projects and three-deckers drips with equal amounts of blood and testosterone. He isn’t shy about showing Bulger’s appetite for violence. Along the way, Cooper introduces us to another of Whitey’s henchmen, Steven “The Rifleman” Flemmi.
Flemmi, played by a burly Rory Cochrane, is known as the man who carried out many of Bulger’s hits. For all the violence and mayhem the duo caused, some of the most terrifying moments are those that occur off-screen. The strangling of Flemmi’s stepdaughter, Deborah Hussey, because she knew too much – we hear Bulger tighten the cord around her neck. We hear the gurgling sounds. What we don’t see is Hussey.
For all of the realism the film tries to convey, Bostonians will recognize that there are no FBI offices located in City Hall, that the Tobin Bridge is not something that can be seen from the banks of the Neponset River in Dorchester (where Bulger and his crew buried some of their victims). And scenes showing trees lush with green leaves in March during South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade could provoke a few chuckles.
The dynamics at the core of the movie, however, work. The complexity of Bulger’s family isn’t ignored. Whitey’s family-oriented brother, the politician known as Billy, who rose to rule the Massachusetts Senate, is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbach willfully turning a blind eye to his brother’s criminal activities.
The British Cumberbach doesn’t go out of his way to lay on a Southie accent, which befits the model for the role. Yet at six feet tall, he towers over the diminutive former Senate president.
But back to the characters — there is also a balance at play between Bulger and Connolly. Connolly at first appears to be the anchored family man, like the head of so many other ethnic Irish households in South Boston. Yet as he spends more time with Whitey and less with Mrs. Connolly, he gradually transforms into someone who walks, talks and dresses like his informant.
If not for Depp’s stunning screen presence, the Australian Edgerton would have stolen the show.
Connolly’s wife, played by Julianne Nicholson, calls out her husband at one point, even accusing him of getting manicures like Bulger did.
Connolly’s response, delivered perfectly by Edgerton: “You married a street kid.”
There’s an undying current of loyalty prevalent throughout. Connolly knows his informant is evil incarnate, a vicious murderer, but also justifies Bulger’s killing by convincing himself that the victims either deserved to die or had it coming after breaking a Southie bond of trust.
Examples of Bulger’s penchant for evil are abound. After an owner rebuffs Bulger’s attempt to buy a Jai-Alai business in Miami, he coldly asks his crew, “do you think his widow would sell the franchise?”
Buried deep in the list of characters is an exceptional Peter Sarsgaard. His portrayal of the cocaine-using turncoat Brian “Balloonhead” Halloran is done to perfection, complete with bugged-out eyes, drug-induced paranoia and an inability to sit still.
The ending is predictable, but then again we already knew that. An odd omission in the film is the role Catherine Greig played in Bulger’s life. She is nowhere to be seen, even though she accompanied Whitey while he was on the run and in California.
The movie also, however, doesn’t go into detail about the pre-1975 Bulger. There is a brief mention of government-run LSD experiments during the 1950s and 1960s, in which he participated while locked up, to obtain a shorter sentence. There are snippets here and there showing his background but nothing to explain his bloodlust.
Checking in at a little more than two hours, “Black Mass” moves quickly, but also leaves us hungry for more detail about Whitey’s capture and return to prison.
Yet the film’s ending is faithful to the book written and reported by former Boston Globe scribes Dick Lehr and Gerard K. O’Neill.
“Black Mass” first hit bookshelves in 2000, more than 11 years before Bulger was finally captured.