This film demonstrates the downside of our national character.
Violent yet mesmerizing, Director Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is a riveting historical drama. It is a dark tale about crime and corruption that infested South Boston during the last quarter of the 20th century, and the film makes it hard to believe that human beings are the highest evolved form of life on our planet.
Johnny Depp is pitch perfect as James “Whitey” Bulger, the head of the Winter Hill Gang that sought to dominate Boston. Though Mr. Depp has been in some unfortunate films, he has never given a bad performance. He brings Whitey to life as a notorious psychopath who was dedicated to viciously punishing any good deed that stood in his way.
Central to Whitey’s success was the silent deal he struck with FBI Agent John Connolly where he served as an informant to help crush the mafia that was competing with him in the Boston area. As Agent Connolly, Joel Edgerton matches Depp’s performance. He demonstrates Connolly’s egotistical drive for fame and glory that eventually tied him to Bulger’s ruthless enterprise. When you recall Mr. Edgerton’s recent performance in The Gift, you have to admire his acting talents.
Though there are a number of interesting performances by actresses in small roles, this is a film where men dominate the screen. Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott play FBI agents who gradually become suspicious of privately doing business with Bulger. David Harbour is also quite good as another agent who becomes trapped in Connolly’s web.
Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) and Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) are memorable as the two guys functioning as Whitey’s dependable hitmen. People repeatedly die, including a drug addled gang member turned informant played by Peter Sarsgaard, and none of the killers displayed an ounce of compassion.
Furthermore, any review has to note the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch, here playing Billy Bulger, Whitey’s brother sitting in a powerful position in the Massachusetts legislature. He displays a wonderful Bostonian accent, and it’s hard to believe that this is the same actor who was wrongfully denied an Oscar for his performance as the gay Englishman Alan Turing in last year’s magnificent The Imitation Game.
What this film captures is the Neanderthal nature of Whitey’s gang. Anyone who crossed him was brutally interrogated and then killed, and violence dominates the screen from beginning to end.
Though the film doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the personal life of our gang of cutthroats, there is a moment when Whitey is visiting his 7-yeaer old son in the presence of the boy’s mother, Mary Bulger (Erica McDermott). Learning that his son has been disciplined in grade school for hitting another student in the face, Whitey sternly lectured him that while there was nothing wrong with hitting someone, you had to be smart enough to do it in private where there were no witnesses. It was a funny, meaningful scene that told you everything you ever needed to know about Mr. Bulger.