Every intro to an episode of one of my favorite podcast, Sword and Scale, opens with the line, “The worst monsters are real”, and that’s exactly what crossed my mind after seeing Johnny Depp’s latest film Black Mass.
Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), Black Mass tells the story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp), head of South Boston’s Winter Hill Gang, who became an FBI informant to help take down the Italian Mafia, and how Bulger’s alliance with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) helped him become one of the biggest criminals in U.S history.
Black Mass does tell Bulger’s unbelievable story, but more than Bulger’s rise to power, it tells a story of corruption, crime, and the bond of friendships. When the story isn’t focused on the horrific crimes being committed by the Winter Hill Gang, it shows Agent Connolly frantically trying to keep his fellow agents off Bulger’s back.
Connolly’s loyalty and commitment to Bulger helped him rise through the ranks of the FBI and gave Bulger all the cover he needed become a kingpin. The FBI was able to take down crime families, while Bulger was able to wipe out his competition. Over the years, the two men became masters at taking out two birds with one stone. They blurred the lines between criminals and law enforcement as they traded favors back-and-forth like baseball cards.
How could a criminal known for killing “rats” be an FBI informant and have a close relationship with an FBI agent? Well, their relationship is best described in a scene where Bulger talks to his son after he gets in trouble for punching another kid at school. Bulger explains, “It’s not what you do, it’s when and where you do it, and who you do it to, or with. If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”
Depp performance as Bulger is as good as advertised. It’s not just the slicked back blonde hair and cold blue eyes that make him intimidating. It’s Bulger’s ability to kill a person one minute and play cards with his mother the next. One of Depp’s most disturbing scenes as Bulger doesn’t involve a murder, but a scene where Bulger has a creepy encounter with Connolly’s wife. It’s not clear if he’s flirting with her or threatening her life. Watching, you’re unsure what’s going to happen during their exchange, but you know Bulger is capable of anything, at any moment. That’s what made him terrifying.
Not to be outdone, Joel Edgerton gives a fantastic performance as John Connolly. With Connolly constantly giving cover for the Winter Hill Gang, he’s a man constantly living underneath a bed of lies. Edgerton doesn’t play Connolly as an outright villain, but a man who believes in not turning his back on the people who’ve helped him. As the film goes on, you can see the weight of what he’s doing taking a toll on him and his family. One of Edgerton’s great scenes is when Connolly subtlety pokes at prosecutor Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) to see if he can manipulate him. It’s the slimy, sneaky behavior you’d expect from a guy who was more criminal than he was law enforcement.
As a gangster film, Black Mass is par for the course. It’s not breaking new ground in the genre, but its terrific performances and incredible cast is what makes it a must see. Depp and Edgerton’s performances are helped by Benedict Cummberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, and an unrecognizable Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights).
Black Mass is a reminder that the worst monsters are real, and there are real monsters on both sides of the law.