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Movie Review

Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger knows exactly what it takes to be a successful criminal. "It's not what you do," the Boston crime boss tells his young son after little Douglas gets caught hitting someone in the face at school. "It's when and where you do it, and who you do it to or with."

Then he adds, "If nobody sees you, it didn't happen."

That cold, calculating, conniving creed serves Jimmy well. His many victims? Not so much.

Black Mass is based on the Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill nonfiction narrative Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal, which tells Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger's sordid story of crime and punishment.

It begins in 1975. Jimmy is a South Boston kingpin whose expanding empire—drugs, prostitution, racketeering—is limited not so much by law enforcement but by rivalry with the hated Italian mafia, headed by Jerry Angiulo.

Luckily for Jimmy, Angiulo's syndicate is for a time much higher profile than his own, so it's the other guy who attracts the FBI's attention. Better yet for Jimmy, the ambitious agent determined to break the Italian mafia, John Connolly, is also his childhood friend from the mean streets of Southie. Jimmy once rescued Connolly from a beatdown when they were kids, in fact, yielding a debt of honor the FBI agent has never forgotten.

Connolly knows that Jimmy is hardly an altar boy. But he's willing to tolerate his old friend's "misbehavior," even going to far as to deflect FBI heat away from him if Jimmy can help him nail the Angiulo gang.

Connolly insists that it's not ratting anyone out—the most heinous sin a criminal can possibly commit in Jimmy's eyes. No, it's more like an … alliance. Jimmy helps the FBI nail some bad guys. And the FBI turns a blind eye to Jimmy and his bad guys.

It's an alliance that bolsters them both for a decade. And then the balance of power shifts so radically toward Whitey's Winter Hill Gang that Connolly's in-the-dark superiors begin to wonder why their star agent can't seem to bust Boston's new No. 1 gangster.

Positive Elements

Black Mass can be read as a cautionary tale illustrating what happens when someone tries to do the right thing the wrong way. In pursuing a noble goal (taking down the Italian mafia) via ignoble means (aiding and abetting another gangster who's as bad or perhaps worse), John Connolly grows increasingly self-protective and corrupt himself. The film also depicts what happens when someone's understanding of loyalty becomes a warped rationalization to willingly, knowingly participate in that person's crimes.

Connolly's wife, Marianne, desperately tries to help her husband see that he's being drawn deeper and deeper into Jimmy's ensnaring criminal web. And the film depicts her eventual decision to protect herself from her husband's poor choices (by changing the locks on their house) as a wise move. Likewise, fellow agent John Morris, who has been dragged down into the morass with Connolly, finally has a moment of moral awakening and confesses everything to reporters from The Boston Globe.

We see the massive toll these crimes have taken, both on their victims and their perpetrators. And we're reminded of what Jimmy's final fate is: He's taken into custody in 2011 and, along with his hatchet men, given a pretty-much-forever prison sentence.

Along the way, the movie seeks to humanize Jimmy a bit by showing us his absolute devotion to his young son, Douglas, and his affection for his mother. After both die, Jimmy becomes an even more monstrous character.

A principled, law-abiding prosecutor named Fred Wyshak refuses to be manipulated by Agent Connolly.

Spiritual Content

At a Catholic funeral for Jimmy's mother, a priest says, "They who trust in Him will understand the truth." Connolly tells Jimmy "God bless" afterwards. Another scene pictures Jimmy sitting alone in the an empty church.

Sexual Content

A coarse conversation revolves around a henchman receiving oral sex from a young prostitute, who also happens to be the stepdaughter of his current girlfriend. We see the woman wearing a garish outfit consisting of short shorts, a plunging top and a fur. We hear that pimps are among the many "businessmen" Jimmy extorts.

In a disturbing and unsettling scene, Jimmy confronts Connolly’s wife in the couple’s bedroom. He puts his hands on her face and neck, looks her up and down suggestively, then says, “John is a lucky man.”

Connolly kisses his wife's neck, then embraces her passionately. But at a club in Miami, he dances suggestively with another woman. Members of Jimmy's gang dance similarly with other women. Crude references are made to masturbation and erections.

Violent Content

Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger is a murderer. And so are the three men who work most closely with him, Kevin Weeks, Steve Flemmi and John Martorano. We see Jimmy brutally strangle and kill two people. He chokes a prostitute to death. He uses a rope to strangle a snitch who's already been badly beaten.

Jimmy and one of his men deliver a savage beating to someone who's crossed the kingpin, leaving him unmoving, bloody and apparently dead. Quite a few folks are shot and killed through the course of the story, often amid spatters and pools of blood, sometimes at ruthlessly close range. All of these killings are premeditated executions chillingly carried out in cold blood. At least twice, victims think they're making nice with Jimmy and his crew when they're abruptly, brutally murdered. A henchman gets beaten up by three rivals who administer an awful shellacking with their fists and feet. We hear a story about a deceased woman whose cats partially ate her corpse.

Crude or Profane Language

About 220 f-words, a dozen or more of which are paired with "mother." There are at least 20 s-words, and close to 20 rough references to the male anatomy and/or oral sex, including these words and/or their variations: "d--k," "pr--k" and "c--k." Other vulgarities and putdowns (some of them racially charged) include "h---," "a--," "a--hole," "p---," "douche bag," "wop" and "dego." Also: 10 or so misuses of God's name (half the time paired with "d--n") and half-a-dozen abuses of Jesus' name.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Alcohol consumption (beer, wine) and smoking (cigarettes, cigars) occupies screen time throughout. Several scenes take place in a bar.

We see a man snort some kind of powdered drug. We hear that Jimmy's ever-expanding drug-dealing empire in Boston includes, among other things, "white stuff" and "brown stuff," marijuana, cocaine and heroin. It's said that Jimmy volunteered to participate in LSD experiments when he was incarcerated for nine years at Alcatraz and Leavenworth; FBI agents say he dropped acid 50 times. One person gets labeled a "coke-snorting piece of s---."

John Morris expresses his unease with the fact that giving Jimmy free rein means he's distributing "speed to high school kids." Jimmy says he's not a fan of "little whores on drugs."

Other Negative Elements

Jimmy's scope of criminal operations gradually broadens to a national and even international level. He gets deeply involved in betting by way of a jai alai organization in Florida, and he eventually orders a hit on the group's president. He even goes so far as global gunrunning at one point. Which brings us to Jimmy's brother, Billy, an influential state senator in Massachusetts. It's implied, but never directly shown, that Billy looks the other way when it comes to his infamous sibling's crimes. Billy's never directly implicated in any of Jimmy's illegal activities, but it seems clear that he's deeply loyal to his big brother and wouldn't intentionally do anything to help bring him to justice.

Jimmy plays a game of gin rummy with his mother. She wins by cheating, and she jokes to her son, "Didn't they teach you anything in prison?" We hear talk of urinating and defecating in a bar.

Conclusion

Black Mass tells a gritty, grimy and murderously grim story of Boston's underworld in the late '70s and early '80s. And moviegoers are invited to take an unblinking look at the merciless maelstrom swirling through it. Over and over again, we watch as a deeply damaged psychopath (a word the film uses to describe Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger) and his men ruthlessly execute rivals and anyone who slights them.

The movie makes it easy to see why the man so many knew as Whitey was second only to Osama bin Laden on the FBI's most-wanted list during his 16 years on the run before his California capture in 2011. And there is, ostensibly, a cautionary tale buried alongside all of Bulger's bloodied victims. Namely, that you can't combat evil by imitating and appropriating its methods. The means don't justify the end here, as John Connolly tragically discovers when he's sentenced to 40 years in prison, the "good" guy thrown into a pen right alongside the bad guys.

Theoretically, that's the message viewers of this visceral, vulgarity- and vice-laden film are supposed walk away with. In reality, though, such a detailed and explicit portrait of one man's violent life arguably glorifies the brutality as much as (or even more than) it critiques it.

Obviously, Jimmy Bulger is wicked. But he's always in control. He always gets what he wants. He comes very close to getting away with it all. That might ultimately—if perhaps inadvertently—deliver another, much more problematic message: that crime is cool, compelling and profitable. And that you can get away with it as long as nobody's looking.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

Johnny Depp as Jimmy 'Whitey' Bulger; Joel Edgerton as John Connolly; Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger; Dakota Johnson as Lindsey Cyr; Kevin Bacon as Charles McGuire; Peter Sarsgaard as Brian Halloran; Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks; Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi; David Harbouras as John Morris; Corey Stoll as Fred Wyshak; Julianne Nicholson as Marianne Connolly; W. Earl Brown as John Martorano; Bill Camp as John Callahan; Juno Temple as Deborah Hussey; Luke Ryan as Douglas Cyr; Mary Klug as Mom Bulger; Erica McDermott as Mary Bulger; Bill Haims as Jerry Angiulo

Director

Scott Cooper ( )

Distributor

Warner Bros.

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

September 18, 2015

On Video

February 16, 2016

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Adam R. Holz

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults