In 1970s south Boston, FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) convinces Irish crime leader Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) to collaborate with the FBI as an informant to abolish a mutual adversary; the Italian mafia of the northside. Jimmy doesn’t consider himself an informant because he thinks he’s getting the FBI to bring down their common enemy. To Jimmy, he’s in a continued alliance with Connolly, who he grew up with in his youth as a Southie street kid. Black Mass tells a true story that spans from 1975 to 1995, with the majority of it taking place in the ‘70s, in the form of present day interrogations and flashbacks of how Jimmy Bulger’s terrible life of crime came to be embroiled with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There is a territory war in south Boston: The Angiulo’s versus Winter Hill. And when John tells Jimmy that Gennaro Angiulo, an Italian mafia figure, is planning to kill him, Jimmy begins to cooperate to provide intel to the FBI to takedown his rival gangsters. Jimmy is the brother of state senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Kevin Bacon has a supporting role as FBI Agent Charles McGuire.
Though Jimmy is a notorious crime boss and murderer, he seems to maintain certain principles that contradict his character. These so-called principles must must be adhered to, or else. Take the opening scene where we meet Jimmy, when he’s an advocate for hand hygiene. When he tells one of his compatriots at the round table of a bar, Martorano (W. Earl Brown), to refrain from licking his germ-infested fingers after dipping it in a public bowl of peanuts, it’s almost as if he’s appalled by his actions. But he’s not disgusted for putting bullets in the heads of informants within his own crew, or, beating another’s brains out against a car window. Or how about when Jimmy comes home to his gorgeous lady, Lindsey (Dakota Johnson), entreating her to take their son to the Doctor because he has a temperature.
This is a slow-burn, semi-biographical crime-drama filled with grotesque scenes of graphic violence that uselessly carry on. It’s as if the filmmakers think that by showing us an extra gunshot wound, or an extra punch, it’ll add to the affect it has already presented. When violence is over-used in movies, it loses its meaning. Nonetheless, Black Mass is a satisfactory film because it’s a significant story that needed to be told, due to the atrocities that occurred, caused by one man, who’s historically listed as the most notorious criminal to come out of south Boston; a progressing residential neighborhood with a strong Irish/American heritage.
It’s a fascinating concept to fathom the real life Whitey Bulger lived with a false identity for 16 years in Santa Monica, California, until he was caught on June 22, 2011 and sentenced to two life terms, and having died in prison on October 30, 2018, over two years after the release of Black Mass. It’s been claimed that the character of Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) was possibly based partly on Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger. Johnny Depp gave a decent performance underneath the bizarre hair & make-up in conjunction with his sidetracking contact lenses, which didn’t seem realistic and consistently diverts our attention while trying to watch him perform. In certain lighting conditions, his facial expressions seemed borderline horrifying and his face resembles a terrifying mask one would purchase from a Halloween store. To think that someone as beautiful as Lindsey (Dakota Johnson) would smile at him with her gorgeous eyes seems farfetched. Especially when the real life images of Whitey Bulger have a minimal resemblance to the off-putting cosmetics we see on-screen.