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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Black Mass, Review: Whitey’s black deeds and the FBI’s blind eye

Black Mass, Review: Whitey’s black deeds and the FBI’s blind eye

Black Mass is a term used to indicate a reverse Christian mass, the inversion of the traditional Latin Mass celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church, one that celebrates the occult. People who know this would think that a film with such a name was another supernatural horror drama. It is nothing of the kind. So, the makers toyed with the idea of changing the title, but for reasons best known to them, stuck with the original. It comes from the title of the New York Times best-seller, ‘Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob’, later changed to ‘Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal’. Incidentally, Mass is an abbreviation of Massachusetts, where South Boston is located.The life and crimes of James/Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger had also inspired an 8-hour documentary series, Whitey, and the character of Jack Nicholson in The Departed too was modelled on the mobster.

John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) and James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp) grew up together on the streets of South Boston. Decades later, they would meet again. By then, Connolly was a major figure in the FBI's Boston office, and Whitey had become godfather of the Irish Mob. What happened between them--a dirty deal to trade secrets and take down Boston's Italian Mafia, La Cosa Nostra, in the process--would spiral out of control, leading to murders, drug dealing, racketeering indictments, and, ultimately, to Bulger featuring on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Whitey already had a "secret trading" deal with his brother, William ‘Billy’ Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), a state senator and President of the state Senate, but when a new prosecutor took over and checked the FBI records, he discovered the huge cover-up, and took it upon himself to bring Bulger to book.

Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill were reporters with the Boston Globe newspaper, and are depicted in the film taking notes while FBI agent Morris spills the beans. O'Neill has won the Pulitzer, Hancock and Loeb Prizes. Lehr, a Pulitzer finalist, has also won the Hancock and Loeb awards. He is currently a professor of journalism at Boston University, where he is a co-director of an investigative reporting clinic. After reading several excerpts from the book, it is clear that it has been largely adapted, taking a lot of cinematic liberties, and not only with the time line, as the director has admitted. Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth are credited with the screenplay. Mark Mallouk (Executive Producer on A Walk Among the Tombstones and Everest, Co-Executive Producer on Rush) wrote a completely new screenplay adaptation of the book, following the June 2011 capture of Bulger. Jez Butterworth is an acclaimed British playwright and film writer-director (Mojo, Birthday Girl), who has said that he was inspired by the works of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.

With a whole book to go by, and some of the key figures in the case still alive, getting a ‘story’ would have been the least of the team’s problems. What was essential was to have a coherent, objective narrative. They could end-up glorifying Bulger, or showing the FBI as an organisation riddled with corruption, or raking up highly sensitive issues like crime syndicates being run on racist lines, or a manipulative Senator and his gangster brother working in cahoots, or the two protagonists showing signs of childhood angst translating into turf wars when they grew up. (Boston was one of the states that was subjected to ‘busing’ in the mid 20th century, a term used to describe the transfer of black students—black mass?--from other states to Boston, in busloads, to ensure racial balance through boosting black student counts in states where they were very small in number). Perhaps they did try to eschew the trappings, not with much success, though. It is hard to avoid these conclusions, howsoever much the film tries to leave things vague and unstated. Bulger’s cold brutality and obsession with elimination of anybody he perceives to be disloyal or even a future threat makes him a kind of devil-hero, and the film does seem like a Black Mass. Scenes showing Bulger with his wife and son are especially well-written, as are the scenes with the prostitute.

The project had been in development since 2008, originating as a Ben Affleck and Matt Damon starrer, with Oscar-winner Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, Dream House) directing. Sheridan was replaced with Barry Levinson, who made way for Scott Cooper. Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) said in a recent interview, “I’m not sure that moviegoers come to narrative features for facts, I think they come for psychological truth, humanity and deep emotion.” He claimed that “the truth was extremely elusive” during the making of the film. It is elusive in the film too. Cooper does score with some eerie suspense, by making Bulger do things that are unexpected, and also not do things that are expected. His style of shooting all the testimonies is repetitive and monotonous. The ease with which every opponent of Bulger is killed, either by his ‘official’ murderer or by himself, many in their cars and in parking lots, makes the confrontation too one-sided to relish. A hand-picked cast surely makes things easier, and nobody strikes a false note.

Johnny Depp has stated that he picked up his Boston accent for the film from hanging out with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. Thankfully, it is largely intelligible. With Depp, as with Jim Carrey, you never know how much you will understand. Bulger is a pulsating performance and a welcome departure from the funny good guy he has played so often. He reportedly walked out of the deal before shooting commenced, but reposed (well-placed) faith in Cooper, and returned. Good decision, Johnny! You could watch Back Mass only for Johnny Depp, but then there is Joel Edgerton, the ‘keeps you guessing’ kind of unconventional looking guy, who did a commendable job, acting in and directing The Gift. He’s not outstanding or anything, but then there’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who, in a relatively small role, can make every scene count, and one punchy scene stand right out.

Veteran Tippi Hedren’s grand-daughter and a promising actress in her own right, Dakota Johnson plays Lindsey Cyr, Bulger’s wife. It needed some confidence to stand-up to Depp, and Johnson has it ample measure. As the no-nonsense FBI boss Charles McGuire, Kevin Bacon is in command. Peter Saarsgard as the hoodlum Brian Halloran does a fine job, while Rory Cochrane makes a brooding Steve Flemmi, Bulger’s lieutenant. Corey Stoll revives memories of Telly Savalas, as the determined and goal-driven prosecutor, Wyshak.  As John Morris, the square-jawed David Harbour is a red herring, but convincingly so. Watch him in the dinner table ‘recipé’ scene. Mention must be made of two other female actors: Julianne Nicholson as Marianne Connolly and British actress Juno Temple as Deborah Hussey. Hussey, who makes a two-scene role count, is going places. Music Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg), of Mad Max fame, has scored the music. This is another feather in his cap.

Black Mass has some classy moments going for it, and a host of laudable performances. It also has a few not so classy moments (including the last shot) and takes too may liberties in the screenplay. Obfuscation can never help any story, least of all a mass murderer/godfather’s based on real-life true story.

Recommended by this critic, but not a film to rave about.

Rating: ***

Excerpt from the book

Connolly actually did think Bulger could prevail. He fully believed Whitey and Flemmi were much tougher than Angiulo and his boys—"stone killers" he called Bulger and Flemmi. But that wasn't the point.

"I have a proposal: why don't you use us to do what they're doing to you? Fight fire with fire."

The deal was that simple: Bulger should use the FBI to eliminate his Mafia rivals. And if that alone wasn't reason enough, the FBI wouldn't be looking to take Bulger himself down if he were cooperating. In fact, at that moment other FBI agents were sniffing around and making inquiries into Bulger's loan-sharking operations. Come aboard, Connolly said. We'll protect you, he promised. Just as Rico had promised Flemmi before him.

Bulger was clearly intrigued. "You can't survive without friends in law enforcement," he admitted at night's end. But he left without committing.

Two weeks later Connolly and Bulger met again in Quincy, this time to cement the deal.

"All right," he informed Connolly, "deal me in. If they want to play checkers, we'll play chess.”

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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