(Rated 14A [Canada] and R [MPAA] for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use; directed by Scott Cooper; stars Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, David Harbour, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson and Luke Ryan; run time: 122 min.)
Cold and dark in Boston
By Ted Giese
Set in South Boston, “Black Mass” details the criminal exploits of James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), his gang (the Winter Hill Gang) and their entanglement with the FBI. More than a bio-pic, “Black Mass” deals with broader themes of truth and lies, secrets and raw ambition.
While Whitey Bulger is the central character, the film is just as much about FBI Special Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood acquaintance of Bulger’s from Boston’s “Southie” neighborhood.
Wrapped up in Connolly’s childhood admiration for Bulger is a misplaced sense of Irish-neighborhood loyalty that blinds his personal judgment. Near the beginning of the film, Connolly comments that children of Southie graduate from playing cops and robbers on the playground to playing cops and robbers as adults in the streets.
The film assumes that its audience knows something about the conclusion of the story it’s telling — that Bulger lived life on the lam for 16 years and was eventually arrested in 2011, then tried and punished for his crimes. Director Scott Cooper provides no traditional first-act childhood playground scenes between Bulger and Connolly, but rather starts in the middle of the story. If “Black Mass” was a traditional biopic, it would have included the backstory and have a third act focusing on Bulger’s life as a fugitive, but it doesn’t. Cooper is clearly less interested in these parts of Bulger’s story, opting instead to give audiences a double character study of the two men.
Bulger, a small-time crook with a small-time gang, becomes a big-time crime boss in Southie after turning FBI informant — essentially exchanging information about the Italian Mafia for protection. Connolly, and by extension the rest of the FBI, cover up Bulger’s criminal activity, paving the way for the Winter Hill Gang and Bulger to become major players in Boston’s organized crime world of the 1970s and ’80s. Connolly, also ambitious and hungry for advancement, is willing to bend and break FBI and federal rules, regulations and laws to bring the Italian Mafia to justice.
Much of the movie is Connolly “playing” Bulger and vice-versa in a high-stakes game of cops and robbers where they are both pushing their luck and hiding the truth from each other, their families and the world. Christian viewers will appreciate the fact that secrets cannot be hidden forever, “for nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17). Bulger’s ascent to crime-boss status is criss-crossed with Connolly’s descent into corruption.
FBI Special Agent Connolly would have been better served in life had he taken the advice of St. Paul, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11). He and Bulger operate with the notion that their activities can be hidden, or at least hidden after the fact, and that the ends justify the means. In a pivotal scene highlighting this idea, Bulger has a dinner-table conversation with his 6-year-old son Douglas (Luke Ryan). He and the boy’s mother, Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson), talk with their son about an incident at school, when Douglas had found himself in trouble after he’d hit another boy who had provoked him. Bulger asks his son if he knew why he’d ended up in trouble. Douglas answers, “because I hit him,” to which Bulger responds by explaining to his son that he’d actually gotten into trouble because there were witnesses, capping it off by saying, “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”
Christian viewers will want to consider the question, “Is it possible to do something and have no witnesses?” Cain killed his brother Abel and God asked Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). God is all-seeing and omniscient. In fact, He knows the hearts of all the children of humankind. (1 Kings 8:39). Even if there are no obvious witnesses, Christians know that God is witness to all the thoughts, words and deeds of all people.
Yet crime can appear to go unpunished. The Book of Hebrews says, “No creature is hidden from [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). The Winter Hill Gang had a favorite place where they buried the bodies of their murder victims, and one of the gang members who was turning state’s evidence against Bulger expressed surprise that the FBI didn’t know about the gang’s “cemetery” when it was such a poorly-kept secret in Southie.
Bulger took secrecy very seriously. It was a matter of life and death as he went about his criminal activities. In another dinner-table scene — this one at Connolly’s family home — such seriousness is played out as Bulger jokingly presses an FBI agent, John Moris (David Harbour), about a “secret” family steak-sauce recipe. From playful banter Bulger turns grim, saying to the increasingly uncomfortable Moris, “You said to me this is a family secret, and you gave it up to me — boom — just like that. You spill the secret family recipe today, maybe you spill a little something about me tomorrow?” The dramatic tension in this scene and in the entire film leaves viewers wondering when and how Connolly and Bulger will trip up, when and how they will be found out, and when and how their secrets will be revealed.
The cast of “Black Mass” gives some solid performances — particularly Johnny Depp, who is well-known for his chameleon-like ability to transform himself for the camera. Depp turns in a complex, nuanced and surprisingly restrained performance as Whitey Bulger and somehow his restraint supplies the film with moments of truly unnerving menace.
With its MPAA R rating, this movie is not going to be for all viewers. This is no “Pirates of the Caribbean” (2003) or “Alice in Wonderland” (2010). “Black Mass” is liberally peppered with harsh language and brutal violence. There is nothing particularly uplifting about the film, nor is there anything glamorous about it.
Considering the subject matter, “Black Mass” is appropriately cold and dark, which at its core confronts the nature and consequences of sin.
The Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to “Reformation Rush Hour” on KFUO-AM Radio, the Canadian Lutheran and Reporter/Reporter Online; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.
Posted Oct. 9, 2015