Thoughts on Watching Black Mass

In the role of  a 1970s version of real life Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, Johnny Depp looks a lot like Canadian-born character actor (and  veteran screen villain) Michael Ironside.

Black Mass - Ironside 1

However Ironside is not a big box office draw. And the stakes aren’t as high. Industry insiders prophesied that if Mr. Depp didn’t bring home Oscar gold or at least a sizable profit with Black Mass he could go back to smaller paychecks and smaller films again after pricey, critically panned megaflops like The Lone Ranger, Transcendence and (shudder) Mortdecai. John may have missed out on the Oscar (he wasn’t even nominated) but Black Mass did turn a profit (plus there is yet another Pirates of the Caribbean sequel on the horizon  and the eagerly awaited film adaptation of Martin Amis’ London Fields so his current status should be secure.)

Black Mass - Depp2
Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass

Still, it’s enough to make one nostalgic for Mr. Depp’s  pre-Jack Sparrow days when the actor was praised for his chameleonic ability to submerge himself in quirky films with debatable box office appeal (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Cry-Baby , Dead Man and Blow … to name just a few).

Under the direction of the estimable Scott Cooper (writer-director of the award-winning Crazy Heart) Mr. Depp is grittily convincing as a ruthless criminal.

But how close is he to the genuine article and how accurate is the film? Well, it depends on who you talk to.

Black Mass - Whitey
Whitey Bulger today (after being captured after years on the run and sentenced to two life terms for his crimes

Interviewed from prison (where he is currently serving two life sentences), Mr. Bulger told Britain’s “Daily Mail” Black Mass is “an anti Whitey movie put together by 2 reporters from the Boston Globe. … This movie is pure fiction!’ However, he does admit Mr. Depp looks a lot like the gangster in his 1970s prime.

Mr. Bulger’s lawyer, Hank Brennan, says his client has not seen the film and has no interest in doing so. (Apparently Mr. Depp offered to meet the convicted mobster but he refused through his attorney.)

Longtime Bulger associate Kevin Weeks (depicted in the film by Jesse Plemons. TV’s Breaking Bad) while admitting that “We really did kill those people” characterizes the film as “a fantasy.”

However, Eric Schneider, a former drugs and guns dealer who has spent the last twenty  years in the witness protection program (guess why) says Mr. Depp’s portrayal of the gangster was so realistic he was forced to walk out midway during his first viewing of the film because it was too much for him. (He later saw the whole film during a second viewing.)   Johnny did a pretty damn good job capturing this man and what he was capable of,” Schneider told The Daily Beast.
Black Mass - Young Whitey
The real Jimmy Bulger in the 1970s
He was more ambiguous about the screenplay (by Mark Mallouk and Jes Butterworth, adapted from a book by Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill). Schneider says the book was more accurate but,as for the film, he says to PEOPLE  “Hollywood does what Hollywood does.”
Mr. Bulger’s “special relationship” with the FBI, specifically old boyhood chum and FBI agent John Connolly (portrayed in the film by Joel Edgerton) is also a prime part of the plot and, according to the film, Mr. Bulger`s interaction with the FBI agent  is the chief reason he was allowed to run his various rackets for as long as he did.
Black Mass - Edgerton & Depp
Johnny Depp (as Whitey Bulger) and Joel Edgerton (as FBI agent John Connolly) in Black Mass
Mr. Connolly is currently serving a 40 year prison sentence for his part in the Bulger saga. He is 75 years old at the time of this writing.
Black Mass - poster