“Black Mass” Enshrines Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
My friends from Bawston whisper the name of Whitey Bulger as if praying to a saint. There’s a reverential air when speaking of the murderous gangster who once controlled South Boston. Maybe that’s why this new film about him is called “Black Mass.”
A black mass is a celebration of evil, a ritual that’s an inversion of tradition Catholic mass. The film’s title comes from a book by two Boston Globe reporters, “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob.”
James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, Jr. was the crime boss of a crew of Irish mobsters known as the Winter Hill Gang. Jimmy Bulger rose to power in the ‘70s after spending nine years in prison and having survived Boston’s bloody Killeen-Mullen gang war.
Fighting for territory with the Patriarca crime family, Bulger said, “If they want to play checkers, we’ll play chess.” So he became an FBI informant, feeding the Feds info about the Mafia group that controlled New England. In return, it’s claimed the Feebies turned a blind eye to the Winter Hill Gang’s illegal activities.
Protected by FBI agents John Connolly and John Morris, Bulger escaped an indictment that sent Howie Winter to prison, leaving Whitey and his partner Stevie “The Rifleman” Flemmi in charge. Bulger reigned for 17 years.
Tipped off by Connolly that the Justice Department was handing down a sealed warrant for his arrest, Bulger went on the lam in 1994. Disappearing for 16 years, he was apprehended a few years ago, living the life of a nondescript retiree in Santa Monica, California. The FBI had put a $2-million reward on his head, second only to Osama bin Laden on their Most Wanted list.
Now we have the cinematic version, starring none other than Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger. For the role, Depp shaved back his hair and practiced a Boston accent. He tried to meet with Bulger, but the prisoner (serving two life-plus-five-years sentences in a high-security federal prison in Sumpterville, Florida) declined to see him. Instead, Bulger’s attorney visited the film’s set to advise on the accuracy of Depp’s portrayal.
“Black Mass” -- currently playing at Tropic Cinema -- chronicles Bulger’s years as an FBI informant and how he manipulated his FBI handlers to eradicate rivals in the Boston underworld. Lots of people get shot and/or beat up in this telling. After all, Whitey was indicted for killing 19 people.
The film co-stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother, Massachusetts State Senator William “Billy” Bulger. Also populating the cast are such notables as Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, and Peter Sarsgaard.
Whether it was stunt casting to transform handsome heartthrob Johnny Depp into an unlikable balding criminal, or the lure of big-bucks financing with Depp’s name attached to the project, or the actor’s desire to prove he’s more than a pretty boy, or his fascination with playing criminal types (“Donnie Brasco,” “Blow,” Public Enemies”), or a change of pace from those silly Captain Jack Sparrow movies, he’s an odd choice. It’s hard to see Whitey Bulger on the screen instead of Johnny Depp in weird makeup.