The Boston crime film constitutes a small but colourful subgenre within the larger universe of the gangster film, arguably Hollywood’s greatest contribution to cinema. Most of these mob films, which range from The Departed to The Boondock Saints, are populated by tough-talking men of Irish extraction. And a good many of them are founded on themes of loyalty and friendship—honour among thieves, as it were.
Loyalty is a word tossed around a lot in Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s film on notorious gang boss James “Whitey” Bulger and his relationship with FBI agent John Connolly. Bulger rose from a low-level hood in the mid-1950s to the top of the Boston gang hierarchy in the 1980s. This rise was abetted by the fact that, unbeknownst to most of his gang members, he had turned informant for the FBI in 1975—encouraged by Connolly, whom he knew since the latter was a boy growing up in the same neighbourhood. The film shows Connolly passing on information about Bulger’s rivals in exchange for tips. By the time Bulger was arrested in 2011, Connolly had already been charged and sent to prison.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because The Departed used several details of the Bulger case to ground its tale of twin moles. Black Mass is less frenetic than Martin Scorsese’s film. Cooper, director of Crazy Heart and Out Of The Furnace, favours the slow burn over the sudden conflagration. Besides Whitey (Johnny Depp) and Connolly (Joel Edgerton), there are a number of recurring characters, among them Whitey’s brother, Senator William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch); Connolly’s morally conflicted partner, John Morris (David Harbour); Whitey’s right-hand man, Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane); and Connolly’s wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson). There are also several brief appearances by key players in the Bulger story, including a haunting one by Peter Sarsgaard as Brian Halloran, an ill-fated business partner of Whitey’s.
For a gangster film, Black Mass isn’t terribly exciting: It lacks the cheerful invective of The Departed or the masterful set pieces of The Town. Cooper directs with few flourishes, but he has a talent for atmosphere and for letting the tension in a room build. He never allows us to lose sight of how dangerous and unromantic a figure Bulger is, and how in awe of him Connolly remained. By putting words like “loyalty” and “tradition” in their mouths, he exposes the hollowness behind this self-serving rhetoric. Friendship is a sham and everyone’s out to make life easier for themselves, whether it’s Bulger’s lieutenants giving the federal agents evidence against him, or Whitey brutally disposing of Flemmi’s moll because he suspects that the police knows she’s involved with them.
Seeing Depp in a strange wig, buried under a few thousand dollars of make-up, has become a trial in recent years, but once you get used to his receding hairline and piercing grey eyes, it becomes easier to appreciate his performance. Depp’s Whitey is violent, wary and unpredictable, a far cry from the glamorous mobster he played in Public Enemies. Edgerton, all fake charm and bluster, is a good foil—the Australian actor is a far more convincing Bostoner than Cumberbatch, whose accent keeps slipping. Harbour, Cochrane and Nicholson are terrific, but I would urge you to look out for the charged scenes involving Dakota Johnson (as Lindsey Cyr, Whitey’s girlfriend) and Juno Temple (as Deborah Hussey, Flemmi’s moll). In a very male-dominated film, these are the scenes that haunted me later on.