Bulger Burial Ground:
I have a feeling that Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s third and best outing as a director, is going to draw out some pretty definite differences in audience reaction.
Of course, the big talking point among film fans is Johnny Depp’s ‘return to serious acting’. Well, I don’t know: I thought he was pretty damned serious in the woefully under rated Transcendence. And is doing comedy roles any less serious or demanding than so-called straight ones? Unless you’re Adam Sandler, of course, then you’re neither fish nor fowl – just an unbearable, cringe-inducing eejit.
I suppose that what they mean is that he has taken a break from wearing Tim Burton’s wardrobe or larking about as a Caribbean pirate. Then again, some people seem to have been put off by the make-up they see in the horrendously misleading trailers, which try to show Black Mass as some sort of gangster shoot-em-up when it’s anything but.
And don’t worry about that make-up because it is superb and you get used to it very fast. If he looks like a vampiric monster that’s because he is one; but it’s those dead eyes that will really get to you.
Perhaps they just mean that it’s a return to the intensity of a Blow or a Donnie Brasco; and in any case that is certainly to be welcomed.
This is a part – and really only a part – of the story of South Boston Irish-American gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. And this is where the film was really interesting to me, not knowing much about the guy. It’s made clear that he wouldn’t have amounted to much more than a lower echelon thug who would probably have been held in check by the existence of the Mafia. However, in the 1970s the FBI want rid of those bad guys and in looking at ‘the bigger picture’ they allow Bulger to rise to a level where he is controlling everything from vending machines to drugs and prostitution.
And in this he is actively aided by his old Southie boyhood ‘friend’ John Connolly (Joe Edgerton) who covers time and again for him to his suspicious and doubting boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon), as well as falsifying information to make it appear that Bulger is of use to them when in fact all he is doing is skillfully playing them.
Connolly is the heart of the film, not Bulger. We are clear on what Bulger is from the start. Let’s face it, if you poke a rabid dog it’s going to take your hand off. Connolly, though, is a complex man who seems to be suffering from a bizarre mix of hero-worship and ruthless ambition. And as he represents the law-and-order boys I find him even more detestable than Bulger. He is happy with the promotions and the gold watches and the big house and the new suits; and make no mistake about it, he knows that people being murdered by Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang is helping him to achieve these things. And of course there’s all this phony Irish-American all-brothers-together bullshit when any one of them would rat out the other if there was something in it for them.
Sounding like someone who just stepped out of Central Casting himself, the real Bulger’s defense attorney Hank Brennan said a couple of months ago:
“Hollywood greed is behind the rush to portray my client, and the movie missed the real scourge created in my client’s case, the real menace to Boston during that time and in other mob cases around the country – the federal government’s complicity in each and every one of those murders with the top echelon informant programme.”
Leaving aside the irony of ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s defense attorney talking about greed, has he actually seen the film? It most definitely points the finger four-square at the FBI.
As it is with modern-day Irish politics, no one can be trusted. The audience knows – although most of his gang doesn’t – that Bulger, scourge of informants everywhere, is himself one; and it is another informant within his own gang who is responsible for the seizing of a major IRA weapons shipment.
The screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk makes use of every character, no matter how minor. In fact, there is one stand-out scene that is dominated by a young actress called Juno Temple. She is a prostitute, junkie and stepdaughter to one of the White Hill Gang members; and the mixture of emotions on her face as she is questioned by Bulger is a small masterclass in acting. It is blackly funny; and I do mean blackly.
(A far more terrifying – and character-defining scene — is when Bulger obliquely threatens Connolly’s wife, played by Julianne Nicholson. Your skin will want to crawl right off your back for being in such close proximity to him.)
Benedict Cumberbatch is stoic, decent, impressive and dignified as Whitey’s brother, who is actually in the State Senate and in constant danger of being brought down because of his murderous relation.
And Butterworth and Mallouk base their script on a 2001 book by Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill which has a spot-on subtitle. It is Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance between the FBI and the Irish Mob.
As he did with his previous film Out of the Furnace, director Scott Cooper makes telling use of the environment from which the characters come. This time, though, it’s more low-key: the failed businesses and boarded up buildings are just there. The colours are grey and metallic and somehow stay that way even in brief Miami scenes. It becomes hard to imagine ‘Whitey’ Bulger ever existing anywhere else.
This may have led to a decision which has annoyed some; and that is not to show the latter years with Bulger on the run. In fact, as Bulger’s girlfriend it has led to Sienna Miller’s entire part, although actually filmed, being cut out. And as much as I have enjoyed the talented Ms. Miller in The Girl and American Sniper I think that artistically it was a correct one – although God knows those years deserve a film in themselves.
There are a lot of odd little moments in this movie. The Bulger Burial Ground (‘humorously’ referred to near the beginning) existed; but the moment that threw me was when we hear in the FBI offices –true, as it happens — that whilst in prison in Atlanta during the 50s Bulger had been experimented on at least fifty times with the then unquantified drug LSD. Strange to think that since it was the CIA who had started those experiments as a form of mind control this means that Bulger had, as well as with the FBI, also had contact, however tentatively, with the CIA.
Black Mass isn’t Goodfellas or The Godfather or Donnie Brasco and it doesn’t want to be. If audiences don’t go in expecting two hours of what they saw in those trailers then they’ll see a fine film.
And that title? I idly wondered at moments throughout as to what kind of religious symbolism it referred; but it wasn’t until the end credits began that I hit my head with a very Homer Simpson-like ‘Doh!’ I’ll let you figure it out for yourselves.