By Dave Montalbano
Every generation of ticket buyers learns about the underbelly of society through the movies. In the 1930s, Al Capone was represented by movies like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. The Genovese Family was a direct influence on The Godfather movies.
In recent times, the Boston thug and FBI informant James “Whitey” Bulger has been represented by award winning motion pictures set in Boston, most notably Mystic River and The Departed. Each of these motion pictures presents its protagonist as an anti-hero who defies society’s conventions and is defeated by his own character flaws.
As portrayed by Johnny Depp, Black Mass details the 40-year rise and fall of Whitey Bulger. Already a sociopath thug in the Southie section of Boston, Bulger fathers a son with girlfriend Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson). When this son retaliates against a bully in the schoolyard and gets suspended from school, Bulger advises him to avenge himself “when no one is looking.”
Despite his criminal activities, Bulger is deeply connected with the legitimate world through his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a member of the state legislature, and FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). The legend of Whitey Bulger grows as he becomes the criminal lord of Boston. Bulger’s criminal empire expands to Ireland and Miami.
Johnny Depp is getting his best notices in years. Like a grey-haired cobra, Depp performs with steely restraint. A comforting friend one moment, Depp’s Bulger can easily knife an acquaintance in the back a moment later. While Depp is the master of ceremonies, Black Mass is a full ensemble piece featuring good performances from Joel Edgerton, Dakota Johnson and Benedict Cumberbatch.
While it does not match the artistic heights of The Godfather movies, Black Mass does provide an interesting chapter in Hollywood made gangster movies. Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is a fine companion piece to Ridley Scott’s American Gangster with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe headlining a fine ensemble cast. These movies walk a fine line between fantasy and reality.
When I attended the Friday afternoon screening of Black Mass, the packed auditorium was full of men wearing T-shirts representing Al Pacino’s Scarface, Giancarlo Espositio’s faux fast food chicken shack from Breaking Bad and older men wearing black. This bizarre experience was like going to the opening day of a Marvel comic movie, except that Black Mass does not celebrate heroes.