Too many contemporary gangster films tend to be all punches and nail-pulling and blood and guns and drugs. There are few gritty, plot-driven mobster movies with complex characters (a bar that was set so impossibly high with the incomparable The Godfather). That’s why Black Mass is so good. Oh, there is violence enough, but the film is not about the action. It’s about a frightening true story that exposes an underworld that is astounding.
The biopic of Boston’s most notorious gangster, James “Whitey” Bulger, stars Johnny Depp as the psychotically terrifying Irish-American, who ruled the streets of the Massachusetts city from the 1970s to early 1990s, as head of the notorious Whitehall Gang. When the net closed in, he spent 16 years on the run, twelve of which he featured on the FBIs ten most wanted list. He was only apprehended in 2011. Thus, a gangster of note.
Bulger is the older brother of Senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), but it wasn’t this relationship that enabled him to operate with such impunity. The film begins with the confession of Whitey’s main henchman, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), to a police officer. “I ain’t no rat. I want it on the record that I ain’t no rat,” he states emphatically, before spilling it all. The extortion, the murders, the ambitious rise… One by one, Whitey’s posse reveals the dark tentacles that stretched everywhere across the city, and beyond, with arms trafficking to the IRA.
In the mid-70s, Whitey forms an unholy alliance with the FBI through his childhood friend, the ambitious, but corrupt-as-hell agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Whitey and the “Southies” (from the dingy streets of South Boston) have to compete with the Italian mafia which is trying to take over all the racketeering, drug trafficking, loan sharking, gambling, and gun running there is. Connolly, desperate to prove himself as a bigshot in the bureau, convinces his superiors to sign Whitey on as an informant, thereby providing one of the most ruthless criminals in the city’s history with immunity. “We get the FBI to fight our wars, and we get to do whatever we want to do!” Whitey tells his right hand man, Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). Once the mafia is taken down, Whitey becomes the overlord of the underworld.
Depp is unrecognisable, ghastly, petrifying: his receding, platinum blonde hair and piercing, vampiric, grey eyes (whose pupils always seem to be pinpricks). His deceiving cool demeanour and restraint, the way he appears almost harmless, just before he loses it and someone ends up in the watery grave of the Charles River. Depp’s transformation is a true testament to Hollywood make-up artistry, but it’s his stellar performance that has many critics hinting at possible Oscar glory.
Edgerton is an excellent supporting actor. Connolly is pure slime. The wannabe rock star agent will do anything to get ahead in his career, while still enjoying the spoils of his relationship with Whitey. But blind greed often precedes a downfall. And when the fall came for the entire Whitehall gang and the FBI agents involved, it was a mighty one. There are so many other stars in the film playing smaller, but wonderful roles: Dakota Johnson as Whitey’s wife, Linsey; Kevin Bacon is Special FBI Agent in charge, Charles McGuire; Peter Sarsgaard is a drivelling drug-addict hitman; and Corey Stoll plays no-nonsense prosecutor, Brian Halloran, who was responsible for finally bringing down the entire rotten cartel of gangsters and law enforcement officials.
The title of the film is a reference to a satanic inversion of the Roman Catholic mass, said to have been performed by witches in medieval times, often involving human sacrifice. It’s a reference to the evil of Whitey Bulger. And yet, as is true of those considered truly wicked, evil isn’t ‘pure’; it isn’t one-dimensional. Whitey’s love for his son, whose death contributes to his madness, and the way he cares for his elderly mother, purposefully losing gin rummy to her again and again, shows an unexpected tenderness and humanity. He helps old ladies carry their packages, and tries to shield his younger brother from any political fallout that comes with being associated with a criminal family member.
Black Mass may be slower than the generic gangster film, but it is an engrossing character study that is tense and riveting throughout. And Johnny Depp’s transformation should not be missed.
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon
Rating: 4 out 5
South African release date: 16 October 2015