It’s a fairly common story in science fiction: A greedy, corrupt government creates a monster to serve their own means, but eventually loses control of the situation and finds itself at the mercy of their own creation. The latest film starring Johnny Depp, Black Mass, isn’t science fiction. In fact, it’s based on the true story about one of America’s most violent and successful gangsters. Nonetheless, Black Mass tells the story of a vicious man who was given free reign by the FBI, Boston PD, and Massachussetts State Police to pursue drug trafficking, arms dealing, racketeering, alleged lottery fixing, extortion, and a slew of other crimes throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Critics are already praising Depp’s chilling portrayal of James “Whitey” Bulger as a return to his glory days as a dramatic actor, and the film for highlighting how the FBI sanctioned a killer to dominate the criminal underworld in one of America’s oldest cities.
James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) had been in and out of correctional facilities since he was a teen, and his fierce loyalty to South Boston made him a favorite among the area’s criminal elements. He was the polar opposite of his brother, future Massachussetts State Senator William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who turned a blind eye to his brother’s life of crime. His first federal incarceration was in 1956 at Atlanta Penitentiary, which was followed by stays in Alcatraz and Leavenworth. Whether it was the oppression of the institutions or a result of his unwilling participation in the MK-ULTRA program during that time, Bulger developed a fear of returning to federal prison. Which is why, when Bulger was finally released and returned to a life of crime, his paranoia led him to do anything and everything to avoid going back. This included killing rivals and allies that came anywhere near to taking him down. It also included crafting an unholy alliance with FBI Special Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), thanks to an introduction by Bulger’s associate and secret FBI informant, Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). However, Bulger never actually provided the agency with any useful information; instead, Connolly would protect Bulger and feed him tips on rival criminals that posed a threat, in return for kickbacks. That was until the DEA, Massachusetts State Police, and the Boston PD decided to undermine the compromised FBI and decided to go after Bulger on their own, leading to a 17-year manhunt.
Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) and writer Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Spectre) didn’t want to stop at a story of a criminal on the run, like Depp’s 2009 film Public Enemies. They dug deeper, creating a layered story about how a government agency had their hands tied by a smart and ruthless man. They also delved into the psyche of man who was basically untouchable on all fronts, and how that affected the balance of power and violence in his relationships; whether it be with family members, like his brother Billy; loved ones, like his girlfriend Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson); friends, like his partners Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) and Stephen Flemmi; and threats to his livelihood, like Brian Halloran (Peter Sarsgaard). Black Mass is a grisly look at what an evil man can do when he answers to no one. Find showtimes and tickets for Black Mass here.