Black Mass is not the typical glorified gangster film of mob bosses living lives of splendor and decadence while wielding exceptional power. Rather, it is a cold and distant examination of violence and manipulative cruelty.
Based on the book of the same name, Black Mass transports us to the snow-strewn and crumbling streets of Boston’s south side during the late 1970’s. The FBI, led on a crusade by former “southie street kid” John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), begrudgingly enters into a relationship with notorious crime lord Whitey Bulger under the auspices of working to curb the rising trend of organized crime in Boston neighborhoods.
Always the astute businessman, Bulger sees in the arrangement an opportunity to use the FBI as his own personal foot soldiers, pushing rival gangs out of what could become new territory for his own gang. For Connolly, the motives behind promoting such an arrangement are less clear, and the film wisely allows us to come to our own conclusions. The agreement, always precarious to begin with, sours over the course of the film and the more naive among us may begin to question who exactly holds the power in this relationship.
Told mainly through the device of informant testimony, the film presents the many tangled webs of allegiances between friends, brothers, rivals, and enemies. These ties between characters shift and twist with time as the stakes and the body counts rise higher. How far is too far? And to what end should we remain loyal to those who have wronged others but who may have loved us?
Whitey Bulger is no romantic criminal mastermind, but a vicious and calculating villain. Men are killed for the slightest of faults and women are threatened for mere suggestions of defiance. There are no heroes in this world, but only an ever-lengthening trail of silently mourned victims.
Johnny Depp holds his own in a chilling and heartless portrayal of Bulger, and Joel Edgerton deftly weaves an enigmatic and conflicted Connolly. Performances from an all star cast also carry us through, with noteworthy appearances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, and Corey Stoll.
The film is not so much a mass but a requiem for a world in mourning for justice and decency. Black Mass brings into startling spotlight the uncomfortably cozy alliance between those who have been entrusted with the preservation of law and order, and those who have sworn to destroy it.