Black Mass is one of those frustrating biopic movies that makes a big deal out of how it’s based on a true story but doesn’t really tell the true story on which it is based. It doesn’t tell a story at all, really.
The movie is based on the 2001 biography of James “Whitey” Bulger, a kingpin who controlled all crime in most of Boston through the late ’70s and early ’80s. He was able to accomplish this because of an alliance with FBI agent John Connolly, whom Bulger used to take out all of his enemies. Connolly, now 75, was convicted in 1999 of corruption charges, for which he served 10 years in federal prison, and is currently serving another 40 years in Florida State Prison after being convicted while he was in federal prison for involvement in one of Bulger’s murders. After 16 years on the run, 12 of them second only to Osama bin Laden on the FBI’s most wanted list, Bulger was caught in 2011. He was found to have been involved in 11 murders out of a suspected 19 among more than 30 charges related to his organized crime career. 86, he is currently serving two consecutive life sentences plus five years in USP Coleman in Florida.
Black Mass stars Johnny Depp as Bulger and Joel Edgerton as Connolly, and focuses on the span from 1975-85, the height of Bulger’s power. The film reenacts some of his more famous murders and explores — well, gently touches on — his relationships with his state senator brother, Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his first common law wife, Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson). Jesse Plemmons and Rory Cochrane appear as Kevin Weeks and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, Bulger’s main associates; David Harbour plays John Morris, Connolly’s partner in crime; and Adam Scott, Corey Stoll and Kevin Bacon play Robert Fitzpatrick, the FBI agent who supposedly blew the whistle on Connolly but was indicted for perjury earlier this year, Fred Wyshak, the prosecutor who did bring Bulger down and was appointed head of the U.S. district attorney’s public corruption unit last year, and Charles McGuire, a fictional amalgamation of Connolly’s supervisors over the years.
Black Mass begs two comparisons, one to Bulger’s real life and another to 2006’s transcendent The Departed, and it doesn’t hold up to either of them.
First thing’s first — this movie doesn’t begin to capture the Machiavellian mastermind that was Whitey Bulger. After serving nine years for armed robbery and hijacking, Bulger returned to South Boston and worked his way up the ranks of the Killeen gang. In 1971, war erupted between the Killeens and the rival Mullen gang. With the Killeens losing, Bulger manipulated the Winter Hill Gang into brokering a peace, which involved both the Killeens and the Mullens being absorbed into Winter Hill. In 1974, Bulger met Flemmi, who had been working with the FBI for almost 10 years, and Bulger followed suit. In 1979, Winter Hill leadership, including former Killeen and Mullen leadership, were indicted for fixing horse races, but Bulger and Flemmi used their FBI connections to stay off the indictment list and assumed control of the gang. From there, Bulger used the FBI to take down the Italian Patriarca crime family in North Boston. Bulger and Flemmi would continue to use the FBI to protect their operations from Boston PD and Massachusetts state law enforcement, despite them now running the most powerful crime family in the city.
In 20-odd years, Bulger used the federal government to go from an ex-con janitor to the most powerful crime lord in Boston. None of that is in the movie. He starts the film as head of the Winter Hill Gang and his rise to power is never addressed. They talk a bit about the Patriarcas, but not by name, someone hands him a case of money once and he does some murders, mostly for spite, and that’s it. There is absolutely no sense of how powerful and dangerous he was, how craftily he got to that point and how much FBI corruption really had to do with his rise to power. This is a biopic, and all parts of his life that are actually interesting and unique are left out. Viewers who don’t know the story will leave the theater wondering what was so special about him.
This refusal to tell the story’s best parts is highlighted by the boring stories the film does tell. The biggest offender is Cyr’s story. She and Bulger had a child who they lost at age 6, and the film walks us through that drama despite it having nothing to do with the rest of the story. The idea could be to introduce a family theme — this would also explain Billy Bulger’s presence, despite him having nothing to do with his brother’s crimes in the movie and little proven to do with them in real life — but if so, the theme is so weak I can’t tell if they meant to put it in there or not. Cyr is gone within the first half hour, further highlighting her uselessness.
Also, their child died in 1974, despite the film stating that it starts in 1975. This doesn’t line up with reality either, as Bulger didn’t assume control of the gang until 1979, but the fact remains they’re bending time to bring you even more uninteresting parts of Bulger’s very interesting life.
If it isn’t enough that this movie doesn’t tell you much about the real life Bulger, it doesn’t really tell you about Bulger as he’s portrayed either. The most basic way to tell a story is to give a character something he wants and then put obstacles between him and that goal, but Bulger has neither discernible goals nor obstacles. Bulger simply exists, and does crimes sometimes.
He’s not even the main character, really — that distinction falls to Connolly, but he also doesn’t seem to have any kind of motivation. He talks a lot about loyalty to Bulger after growing up with him, so his motivation could be to help Bulger, I guess, but that begs the question, “Help Bulger do what?” which brings us back to the original problem.
Comparing this movie to The Departed, inarguably one of the best crime movies ever made, may seem unfair, but they’re very similar stories. The Departed’s primary villain, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), is based on Bulger, and his relationship with Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) mirrors Bulger’s relationship with Connolly. Additionally, they have several scenes in common — Connolly and Sullivan both get locked out by their significant others, Bulger and Costello both ship weapons of war overseas only to have the boats captured, in the end it turns out literally every character was a rat of some kind, the list goes on.
An even better reason to compare these movies is Costello also has questionable motives. Sullivan and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) literally ask him at separate points in the film why he’s still running drugs, and there’s never a clear answer. However, over the course of the movie, Costello’s complexes of pride, greed, nationalism, racialism, lack of faith and clashes with his Catholic wife and culture and desperation to be seen and admired as a father figure turn him into a rich, compelling character and the most memorable part of a rich, compelling movie. You don’t know why he does what he does, but you want to, and interpreting his character — is he a Satanic figure or a messianic one? — is one of the things that really rewards subsequent viewings.
Additionally, The Departed features intricate and detailed dialogue scenes, many of which can be interpreted several different ways. In Black Mass, everybody says exactly what they mean all the time. They curse a lot to spice it up, but most of that is just inserting “fucking” as an adjective, and it’s inserted in all the wrong places. Not only do these characters not talk like real people, they curse like fourth graders.
Bulger has nothing resembling Costello’s layers of character traits. Really, he doesn’t have any character traits at all. He doesn’t do anything interesting, there’s nothing inherently interesting about him, so why watch a movie about him?
Black Mass will release widely Sept. 18.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. How far can you go in life before realizing how distracting and gross mouthbreathing is? I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.