The threat of physical violence is omnipresent in Scott Cooper’s muted crime drama, Black Mass. The narrative focuses on the Faustian bargain between FBI agent John Connolly and his childhood friend and mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger. As both men climb the ranks of their respective worlds, Connolly’s craft is subterfuge and deception; Bulger’s is intimidation and brute force. Though the card house tumbles eventually, neither the fall nor the resolution are the crux of this story. We may have come for the crime drama, but Cooper’s film strength is in the contemplation of Connolly’s misplaced loyalty towards Bulger, which the gangster wantonly exploits.
The narrative of the film is framed by FBI interviews with associates of Bulger, as they move through his rise from aging ex-con to kingpin. Bulger is well-played by Johnny Depp, but nearly every member of the supporting cast shines as well. This is especially true of Connelly, played by Joel Edgerton, who provides the stimulating factor to kick off the story. Tasked with investigating the Italian mafia in Boston, Connelly convinces the FBI to ignore the “minor” transgressions of Bulger in exchange for information on the Italians and a promise not to commit murders. Connelly also convinces Bulger to provide the information. Of course, Bulger agrees in order to hurt his enemies, and then blatantly exploits his gang’s newfound diplomatic immunity.
Both Connelly and Bulger experience immense windfalls at the destruction of the Italians, but Bulger continues his crime spree by strong-arming the Jai-Alai betting circles while Connelly rests on his laurels. Bulger’s brazen disregard for is agreement with Connelly becomes clear at this point, as whoever stands in Bulger’s way ends up dead reasonably quickly. Connelly has to cover and lie to protect Bulger and his apparent “source”, and loses any credibility with his colleagues. It is even revealed later that most of the information credited to Bulger was fabricated by Connelly, a realization that paints him in an entirely different light in retrospect. His attempts to bargain with Billy Bulger, the president of the Massachusetts State Senate and younger brother of Whitey, offer no absolution, and Connelly’s days as a free man are numbered.
Yet even as the lies become unveiled, Connelly remains loyal to his childhood friend. Edgerton imparts Connelly with a peculiar naiveté that lends the character a sense of tragedy – loyalty is so important to him that he is willing to lose it all if he remains in the good graces of the Bulger brothers. Connelly’s own wife bears the brunt of these decisions, and the most chilling scene in the film occurs between her and Whitey. It is the quintessence of intimidation, delivered by nothing more than Depp’s cold performance, and worth the price of admission alone.
Black Mass makes a strong statement about exploiting loyalty through deception and intimidation, and mostly works as a character study of James Bulger and those closest to him. The supporting actors are all stupendous and help realize the reality of Bulger’s story, which is more a slow-burn than a series of shouting matches or tension-building pursuits (as in The Departed, for example). The film does feel as if it ends too abruptly, and closing title cards provide a “where are they now” kind of context to some of the major characters – including the arrest of Bulger in 2012. Overall, this is a strong film which leans heavily on powerful performances from an all-star cast. The story may stew a little too long for all audience members, but the film has plenty going on beyond a simple gangster film.