When they watch Black Mass what are Bostonians seeing? A strange blend of reality and mythology.
Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper. Screening throughout New England.
By Tim Jackson
Whitey Bulger gets the mythic status he doesn’t deserve and Southie adds another feather in its gangster cap in Scott Cooper’s film adaptation of the book Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, The FBI, And A Devil’s Deal. It stars, as every Bostonian knows by now, a serious and very mean Johnny Depp as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Is Black Mass any good? Of course it is. Depp takes this role seriously and will probably get the big award nomination. There are lots of spot-on Boston accents (the first thing we look or listen for), recognizable locations, and tons of local actors including a listing in IMDB of 115 unaccredited non-speaking background players. Brookline’s Harvard Street was shut down for hours last Tuesday in advance of a premiere screening; helicopters flew overhead as a beautiful and stylish Depp graciously strode the red carpet at the Coolidge Corner Theater along with several of his co-stars and the director. Buzz abounds.
What are Bostonians watching when they see Black Mass? A strange blend of reality and mythology. I moved to Winter Hill in Somerville in 1985 and heard about Bulger and the toughs that hung around ‘the Dunkin’ on Broadway. “Slumerville,” as the town was referred to for years, was definitely rough around the edges. Over in Cambridge, Matt and Ben were 15 and 13, just a twinkle in the city’s eye, beginning to work in the local acting scene along with Carolyn Pickman (who cast the locals in Black Mass). Damon, of course, was raised in Somerville. The two were studying with actor Paul Guilfoyle, who was part of the late David Wheeler’s renowned Theatre Company of Boston. His son, Lewis Wheeler, appears in the film. Director David Wheeler should not be confused with the David Wheeler who is the son of Roger Wheeler, a Jai Alai executive and chairman of the board of Telex Corp, murdered in Tulsa in 1981 by Johnny Martorano, a Somerville native, by order of Bulger. (Martorano is featured in an informative interview on a episode of 60 Minutes). That murder was enabled by John Connelly, the corrupt FBI agent who is at the heart of the story.
Meanwhile, at the Channel Nightclub in Fort Point, a local music scene was thriving. It was reputedly owned in part by mobster and hit man “Cadillac Frank” Salemme a partner in the Winter Hill Gang who was wounded in a Mafia war shootout at the House of Pancakes on Route 1 in Saugus. He turned state’s witness and is currently in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Salemme had been killing buddies with Steve “the Rifleman” Flemmi, Bulger’s main ally and fellow informant. On a personal note, Flemmi had an estranged son who lived for a few weeks at my apartment in 1979.
Among Bostonians and Somervillians, these kinds of anecdotes and coincidences are a fact of life. The book is a detailed recitation of the unholy alliance made up of Bulger, Flemmi, and FBI agent John Connelly. All were raised in South Boston, a neighborhood bond that made Bulger comfortable with agreeing to act as an informant for the FBI against the Italian Mafia run by Raymond Patriarca. The devil’s deal was a gift for Bulger — it gave him a murderous privilege — and the monstrous mobster used it to his own lethal advantage.
Black Mass dispenses with extraneous crime-story detail to focus on the character of Bulger. To recreate the crime boss, Depp jettisons his cutsie-pie persona. Joel Harlow’s excellent make-up lends indispensable assistance; he was also in change of Depp’s transformations into Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland. With prosthetics, rough textured skin, fake teeth, and a bald wig complete with thinning hair, Depp morphs into a blend of himself and Bulger. Says Harlow: “Each hair was individually punched into the prosthetic each time before it was put on. There were about 45 forehead pieces that needed to be done … and each took 22 hours to do.” Depp studied Bulger’s movement and physicality from surveillance tapes. I have often been put off by the actor’s mugging, but here he wisely stills his performance. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s colorful turn as Irish mob boss Francis “Frank” Costello in The Departed (with Matt Damon), which conjured up too much of his Jack Torrance in The Shining, Depp nimbly contrasts Bulger’s icy charm with sudden explosions of murderous violence that bubble up from a brain seething with anger and a feral need for control.
Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks, Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi, and Joel Edgerton as John Connelly are convincing. They have the scored and punchy faces of the Southie Irish, mugs filled the punk menace of boys who grew up in the projects with something to prove. They are also cautiously servile. They know the rules and the consequences. There are a number of slick cameos here, but Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger is particular interesting. With little time to prepare for his role, the great British actor chose to ignore (mostly) a Boston accent. The result is a resonant characterization; like his brother, this is a man who demands to be in control and holds his cards close. Cumberbatch affects a vaguely patrician lilt to his speech that effectively camouflages the figure’s South Boston roots, though Bulger wore them proudly. Like his lunatic sibling, this Bulger is organized, efficient, direct, and self-assured. (What was in that gene pool?) Despite Cumberbatch’s own peculiar physiognomy, his depiction catches the essence of the powerful, no-nonsense Billy. It’s an insightful interpretation.
Boston’s own Lonnie Farmer begins the film in the role of DEA Agent Eric Olsen, who is interrogating Flemmi. Farmer’s soulful eyes fill the screen, his warm baritone draws in both the audience and the confidence of the criminals. From then on Cooper moves the story along with efficiency. Tom Holkenborg’s score is one of the film’s key elements: it fills the drama with resonate musical themes, emotions and, mischievously, the kind of dread found in a horror film. (Holkenborg, a Dutch composer (also known as Junkie XL) has also done scores for Mad Max: Fury Road, 300: Rise of an Empire, and The Amazing Spiderman 2, and Divergent.)
We finally have our Whitey Bulger movie. It will no doubt be met with critical praise by some and condemned by others for glamorizing a lying, thieving, sociopath whose crimes are still fresh for many of the survivors and victims’ families. Years from now Black Mass will no doubt be part of the inevitable Boston Gangster Film Festival, along with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Boondock Saints, The Town, Southie (with Donnie Wahlberg), and the little known The Oxy-Morons (2010) by Johnny Hickey, who produced, directed, and starred in the film after he wrote the screenplay in his prison cell. Crime means never having to say you’re sorry, which reminds me of another Boston film phenomenon from 1970 with Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neill. We’ve come a long way.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary When Things Go Wrong is about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.