In a letter to the Boston Globe, a resident of that august city wrote that James “Whitey” Bulger is Massachusetts’ version of the Confederate flag: An avatar of past evil, but still the subject of New England obsession because the evil is deeply connected to the region that spawned it. There no evidence linking William Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother and the president of the Massachusetts state senate, to his sibling’s crimes, but the forces that propelled them to the positions of influence were not as different as many a Massachusetts man would like to think.
It was inevitable that ”Whitey” Bulger would eventually become the subject of a biopic. And Scott Cooper’s Black Mass does not disappoint. Bostonians can rest assured that, unlike his earlier crime film Out of the Furnace, their home city is portrayed as being remediable. It does not even seem to be particularly corrupt. What it is, however, is tribal, with the Irish and Italians constantly at one another’s throats. It is a tribalism which not only defines allegiances in the criminal underworld but also among police and federal authorities.
That, if nothing else, is what makes Bulger a notable thief among thieves: Apart from being a mass murderer and a drug dealer, he was a crony capitalist entrepreneur who found that he could further enrich himself through a rent-seeking information exchange with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. More specifically, he accomplished this goal through a partnership with a childhood friend, John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton), who had made his way up the Bureau’s greasy pole, apparently with a lot of the grease rubbing off.
Both Mr. Depp and Mr. Edgerton effectively convey the workings of two men who may be moral monsters but are never devoid of ideals. Nonetheless, the ideals that they represent were largely abandoned by society at large with the invention of the printing press. If there is one thing that Mr. Depp’s Bulger never seems to regret, it is taking a life, but more interesting (and disturbing) still is that he performs acts of homicide with every fiber of motivation in his body while also waxing indignant and snarling “How can you be so cruel?” when his common law wife suggests that they take his comatose son off life support.
In other words, much like Breaking Bad, Black Mass serves as a microcosm of the tribal mentality. Bulger had no regrets about taking life because in his moral cosmos, sins like the betrayal of a fellow criminal not only merited death, they required it. Somewhat strangely, even as he became more extremist in his application of this principle, his followers who were less committed to it than he, did not flinch. His followers (played by Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane) sometimes convey the hesitancy that Bulger lacks when working his will, but they continue to mercenary on. Perhaps this is a testament to how difficult it can be to break from a pattern of the status quo.
And acceptance of this pattern is definitely true of the Boston that Scott Cooper depicts. Unlike in Out of the Fire, which made New Jersey look like post-Putin Ukraine—amazingly without a shot of either Trenton or Newark—the director does not spend much time dwelling on the “lost Atlantis” that used to provide good, unionized jobs in the shipyards. The camera has little room for gratuitous shots of urban decay. But the Boston of Black Mass, which is defined as much by its people as its structures, seems a place which is always ready to look the other way, forever trying to convince itself that it has no need of salvation.
Perhaps this was the second greatest trick that the Devil ever pulled. It is definitely a lie which led to the prosperity of men like Bulger and Connolly. But despite the fact that Boston never became a den of vipers, just having one viper was enough for everyone to come away slightly tainted after its eradication. Bulger’s brother, Senator William Bulger (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, mainly to provide a moral counterpoint) would never be convicted of complicity in any of his brother’s wrongdoings, but he lost his legitimacy and vocation because of his failure to do enough to stop what was happening.
In a recent interview, Kevin Weeks (the henchman portrayed by Jesse Plemons) said that the movie was mostly fiction—except for the part about all the people that he, Bulger and the rest killed. Ironically, this succinctly summarizes what had been happening in Boston during the time that Bulger served as the Hades of its underworld. It could tolerate the hypocrisy, just not the murder.