Blood, love and loy­alty in Mob think­ing

The Church of England - - REVIEWS -

Black Mass (cert. 15) takes its ti­tle from the book by Dick Lehr and Ger­ald O’Neill about Bos­ton Ir­ish mob­ster James (Whitey) Bul­ger. The book’s full ti­tle was “Black Mass: Whitey Bul­ger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal”.

Es­sen­tially, that’s a synop­sis of the plot – so miss three para­graphs to avoid spoil­ers (though it’s all pub­lic knowl­edge). The book’s later ti­tle “Black Mass: The True Story of an Un­holy Al­liance be­tween the FBI and the Ir­ish Mob” is even more ex­plicit.

The book’s au­thors, re­porters for the Bos­ton Globe, had ear­lier writ­ten a book about the rise and fall of Mafia boss Gennaro Angiulo, con­victed in 1986 of rack­e­teer­ing. There was a men­tion for FBI agent John Con­nolly.

Bul­ger (Johnny Depp) and Con­nolly (Joel Edger­ton) had grown up to­gether in South Bos­ton, but had taken sep­a­rate paths. Bul­ger was left as leader of Bos­ton’s Win­ter Hill Gang when its ear­lier lead­ers were ar­rested, and gained pro­tec­tion from the FBI in re­turn for in­for­ma­tion, some true, about the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Mafia.

Get­ting the Mafia was the FBI pri­or­ity, but in the process Con­nolly gave Bul­ger im­mu­nity for his own rack­e­teer­ing, which gained from the demise of his ri­vals. It be­came a li­cence to kill, with Con­nolly’s tip-offs making him ac­ces­sory to mur­der.

For the film, di­rec­tor Scott Cooper adopts more Scors­ese’s style in Good­fel­las (1990) – there’s a scene that’s an ob­vi­ous homage – than Cop­pola’s God­fa­ther se­ries. Guys get drawn in to stuff, and the story partly fol­lows their point of view.

There’s Kevin Weeks (Jesse Ple­mons), whose own book af­ter release from prison, Bru­tal: My Life in Whitey Bul­ger’s Ir­ish Mob, be­came a best­seller, fixer Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), and Johnny Mar­torano (W Earl Brown), the gang’s hit­man, with a tally well into dou­ble fig­ures. Flemmi was prob­a­bly a bet­ter FBI in­for­mant that Bul­ger, but Con­nolly was han­dling Bul­ger, and ex­ag­ger­at­ing his value.

Whether that was down to old loy­alty as a “Southie” child­hood pal, or for his own ca­reer prospects, is am­bigu­ous, but it puts more than a strain on his mar­riage to Mar­i­anne (Ju­lianne Ni­chol­son). The strain on his re­la­tion­ship with his FBI boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Ba­con) is more of a prob­lem, com­ing to a head with ap­point­ment of a new as­sis­tant dis­trict at­tor­ney (Corey Stoll).

It’s of­ten not easy watch­ing (two men badly beaten in the first few min­utes) but early on Bul­ger is de­picted as a fam­ily man. His com­mon law wife Lyn­d­sey Cyr (Dakota John­son), her own com­plic­ity passed over, tries to dis­ap­prove of his ad­vice to his son Dou­glas (Luke Ryan) af­ter a class­room fight, to set­tle things else­where: “If no­body sees it, it didn’t hap­pen”.

Dou­glas died from Reye’s Syn­drome, aged six. It’s a sit­u­a­tion over which Bul­ger has no con­trol, lead­ing to break-up from Lyn­d­sey.

Per­haps the hard­est call is the in­flu­ence of Bul­ger’s brother Billy (Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch), a state se­na­tor man­ag­ing to dis­tance him­self from his brother’s ac­tiv­ity. Re­luc­tance to say what he knew of Jimmy’s where­abouts af­ter he went on the run was the only direct link.

Depp’s chilling per­for­mance as Whitey, con­trasted with Cum­ber­batch hon­ing his brother’s smooth de­meanour, could see them get best and best sup­port­ing ac­tor nom­i­na­tions. Whether the film it­self or the di­rec­tor get nom­i­na­tions is less likely – it will not be in the canon of great mob movies – but as an es­say in “blood, love and loy­alty” it has its mo­ments.

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