My earliest memory of my grandfather is of his valiant efforts to get me to eat my vegetables. A native of South Boston with an unmistakable Boston accent, he regularly entreated me not to waste food so that I could grow up to be “big and strong.” Although he often failed to convince me of the vegetables’ merits, there was always one threat that puzzled me. “If you don’t eat your vegetables,” he would say, “Whitey will get ya.” If you’re from Boston you know all about James “Whitey” Bulger, a ruthless, murderous mobster who ran the Winter Hill Gang. Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is a biographical representation of Whitey, from his family life with his brother and then with his wife and son, to his rise and fall as the unforgiving mastermind of organized crime in South Boston. The film does a masterful job at bringing Whitey and the enterprise back to life and artfully delineates the harsh realities of a life in organized crime.
The shining star of the film is its lead actor, Johnny Depp. Playing Whitey, a radically different character from Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Depp gives a chilling performance. While his portrayal begins somewhat forced and unnatural, Depp quickly captures Whitey’s intensity in both violent and non-violent scenes, expertly evoking both his raw brutality and gradual mental instability after the death of his beloved mother and son. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, when Whitey’s son confesses that he got in trouble at school for punching a bully in the face, Whitey calmly passes on his disturbing philosophy of life: “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 . . . didn’t happen.” Later, we see Whitey actualize his advice as he callously strangles the step-daughter of one of his henchmen. Her crime: simply getting arrested by the police for an act unrelated to Whitey’s illegal businesses. Though she denies any connection between Whitey and herself, in Whitey’s mind anyone even potentially putting him at risk, in his own words, “could get you buried real quick.” In Depp’s unnerving portrayal, Whitey is a man whose calculated actions are entirely devoid of remorse.
The other prominent actors—Benedict Cumberbatch playing Whitey’s law-abiding brother, State Senator William “Billy” Bulger (and yes, I’m not kidding, Whitey’s brother was actually a Massachusetts State Senator while Whitey terrorized Boston) and Joel Edgerton playing the sycophantic FBI agent John Connolly—offer admirable, but ultimately less compelling performances. Unfortunately, because Cooper devotes the majority of the film to Whitey’s development, Cumberbatch and Edgerton exhibit rushed and disjointed growth. For instance, while for most of the film Senator Bulger simply ignores and wants to have nothing to do with his brother Whitey’s activities, at the end of the film Cooper notes that Senator Bulger actually had communication with the fugitive Whitey. This is a lost opportunity for the Academy Award-nominated Cumberbatch who could have showcased a deeper element of Senator Bulger’s true Southie loyalty.
Cooper is much more inventive with his camerawork. Throughout the film, he uses low angle shots to frame Whitey and his henchmen as physically higher than others, especially the victims of his Winter Hill Gang. Even when Whitey attends Church he sits in the upper deck, visually suggesting that he feels above the law, above mere mortals, above God. It is Cooper’s canny use of camera angles that most slyly underscores Whitey’s delusions of omnipotence and untouchability.
Black Mass is at its best when it explores the theme of loyalty and its paramount position in Whitey’s modus operandi. Every murder in the film concerns people who have either disrespected Whitey, snitched on Whitey, attempted to undercut Whitey’s business, or simply made a mistake that jeopardizes Whitey’s security. At the slightest sign of disobedience or error, Whitey reinforces his authority by challenging or removing any potential threat. Whitey’s ex-henchmen also value loyalty highly. Even when they inform on Whitey to the police, they adamantly insist they are not “rats.” The fact that it takes more mental gymnastics to agree to speak to the police than to murder countless people spotlights just how deeply rooted the Southie mentality is in the Winter Hill Gang. Unquestioning loyalty provides not only the foundation for Whitey’s personal pathology, but also the backbone of the entire crime organization.
Cooper’s film makes it emphatically clear that although loyalty is a central tenet of South Boston, it has a cost—and a big one, too. He elegantly ends the film by showing each character and the prison term or penalty each received. Ultimately, those who broke the unbreakable neighborhood bond and ratted on Whitey were able to make deals and serve shorter prison sentences. Clearly, the omertà (code of silence) carries a long term.
Looking back on my grandfather’s threat about Whitey and my vegetables, I am sure that it would have been a far more effective tool had I seen this film first. Had I known what the name “Whitey” really meant, I would have been scared to death (and I probably would have grown to be a couple inches taller). But really, besides the audience’s attention, this film captures what the name Whitey Bulger truly means—dark and unrelenting dominance—and shows just how terrifyingly far Whitey went to preserve that meaning.
Johnny Depp’s powerful performance is definitely worth your time. But if you were coming to see Benedict Cumberbatch or anybody else, you might leave unfulfilled.