MPAA Rating: R
USCCB Rating: NR
Reel Rating: (3 of out 5 reels)
Sin has a nasty way of poisoning everything it touches, even if it is accompanied by the best of intentions. Black Mass illustrates this point by dramatizing the relationship between the FBI and Whitey Bulger, a small town gangster who in the course of the next decade becomes the most feared crime lord on the East Coast, largely with the FBI’s help. It’s a decent crime drama that wisely uses short, sudden bursts of violence rather than prolonged scenes of gore, combined with excellent acting a good script following the immoral choices of cop and criminal alike to their logical conclusion. But, in the end, the ends never justify the means and cooperation with evil will always lead to darkness.
The narrative is told in flashback vignettes as testimony from former members of Bulger’s posse, the Winter Hill Gang. This method creates a solid structure but also spoils certain details, such as who dies and who gets caught. The story begins in 1975 South Boston; at the time, Bulger is little more than a local tug with a couple of tough friends who would rather beat up troublemakers than assassinate high profile rivals. He is smart, good at reading character, and seems comfortable in his own setting, visiting his elderly mother regularly and taking care of his new wife and son.
Suddenly, a golden opportunity arrives. FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) asks Bulger for information to help bring in the much more prominent Patriarca crime family, Winter Hill’s biggest rivals. “I’m no rat,” Bulger remarks. “No,” insists Connolly. “It’s an alliance.” The unholy treaty proves quite successful at first for both parties but soon spirals out of control as all criminal enterprises must.
The most compelling aspect of Black Mass is Johnny Depp’s brilliant, harrowing portrayal of Bulger as he undergoes a radical transformation once the deal is struck. As Connolly and his men go after the Italian mob, he begins to assert his dominance to fill the widening void, expanding out of Boston and across the East coast. Suddenly, Bulger’s six-year-old son dies in a matter of days from Reyes’ Syndrome. This sense of helplessness against the one thing he cared about most creates a psychotic need to control everything around him, and he launches a rampage of terror, killing anyone for the smallest infraction or inconvenience, including strangling the stepdaughter of a close friend before the man’s very eyes. Emboldened by his protection from the FBI, he even pressures Connolly into giving up names of other informants and information on police actions.
As a kid growing up in South Boston, Connolly looked up to Bulger. In a way, he was just as ambitious. “We went from playing cops and robbers as kids,” Bulger smirks, “to doing it in real life.”. After taking down the Patriarca family, Connolly gets a big promotion and relishes in his newfound stardom. He and Bulger grow closer and closer, even dining at each other’s houses, a troubling fact not lost on his anxious wife. By the end, he is just another extension of Bulger’s empire, a mole ratting on his other government employees.
The central problem with Connolly’s plan is the idea that evil can be contained and controlled. He gets the Bureau to go along with the “alliance” with the promise that Bulger will not murder or get involved in high level crimes and that good the produced will far outweigh the evil. “Look at the big picture,” Connolly tells them.
Yet evil always has its own interests at heart. Satan is more than willing to allow a little bit of good to bring about a much greater evil. There is a story about the Curé of Ars who, exhausted from hearing confessions up to sixteen hours a day, ran away from his parish out of fear he was neglecting his prayer life. Soon afterwards, he realized that this was a temptation from devil to stop his healing ministry and so he promptly returned.
Being a movie about the Irish mob in Boston, Catholic imagery is everywhere. There is also the allusion to an occult practice in the metaphorical title. Yet, despite the abundance of crosses, prayers, and Roman collars, the film never actively engages the faith. Perhaps that is purposeful. Bulger himself always appears at the peripheral of any religious event. At his mother’s funeral, he stands alone in the balcony of the church while his family mourns below. Just before he runs away as a fugitive from the law, he sits quietly in a church pew, not praying but just…there. These are people who find cultural value and social meaning from external symbols but refuse to let the gospel touch their hearts. Unfortunately, in the Church in the United States, “many are called but few are chosen.”
The participation of Catholics in organized crime is a horrific scandal befitting the sinister label Black Mass. It undermines the faith while pretending to be part of it. The only thing a gangster can hope for is death or prison, or he can simply not get involved in the first place. Pope Francis has come down very firmly on this point, excommunicating any members of the mafia after a drive-by hit killed a three-year boy in Calabria. In the end, neither Bulger or Connolly, for all of their ambition, sees the big picture. Sin first distorts, then dismantles, and, when it goes unchecked, destroys completely.
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