Blood, love and loyalty in Mob thinking
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.