starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons and Kevin Bacon
screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth
directed by Scott Cooper
Called “Black Scandal” in Japan, Johnny Depp plays James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of South Boston’s Irish-American Winter Hill Gang in the 1980s and 90s. It is based on the 2001 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill. This James Bulger (born 1929) has nothing to do with James Patrick Bulger (1990-1993), the Liverpool toddler brutally murdered by the 11-year-old English psychopaths Jon Venables and Robert Thompson (both born in 1982). I had heard of the English murder victim in 1993 when that crime happened, but I had never heard of the American criminal James “Whitey” Bulger until I read in the media of his capture by the FBI in Santa Monica, California in June 2011. Then I learned who he was, his colorful criminal history, and his 16-year-long FBI Most Wanted fugitive status.
“Whitey” Bulger was listed as a secret FBI informant by that police agency, helping the agency fight Italian-American Mafia crime in the Boston area. But his status merely allowed Bulger to engage in his criminal operations with immunity while simply replacing the Italian Mafia with the Irish Mafia. This transfer of criminal power involved several heinous murders, but to his FBI handlers - Irish Americans - it seemed like a self-evident virtue and an improvement. In the movie it came across to me as (typical) Irish incompetence - a criminal, drunken, corrupt cohort of inbred Irish Americans in crime and in law enforcement with no plan, no vision, and no skill beyond being mere thugs. Dangerous, uninhibited thugs, yeah, but still … . Bulger and his handlers were tied at the hip through their mutual neighbourhood origin.
The story of Black Mass was gripping partly because the crimes it portrays are so awful, and partly because they are based on real events. It’s “biographical crime drama.” Depp’s portrayal of Bulger felt very authentic, accurate and scary. It felt like Black Mass is to Irish-American crime what Goodfellas (1990, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino) was to Italian-American crime - an enduring image of ethnic crime syndicates in America that become a cue, or reference to the general population. A generation ago The Godfather (1972, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton) did the same thing. All these films feature ensemble casts. Imagine that.
The physical appearance of Whitey Bulger throughout the movie was very consistent. I got the feeling that Depp practically never changed clothes/costume. I’m sure he did, but I didn’t have a strong impression of it. It looked like even as an adult Bulger never took to a suit and necktie but always donned blue jeans and a windbreaker, symbolizing his origin in and affinity with the street. It left me with a bad feeling.