|Johnny Depp in Black Mass|
Sin Begets Sin
A Review of Black Mass by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, Three 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 substitutes short, sudden bursts of violence rather than prolonged scenes of gore with good script and excellent acting that follows the immoral choices of cop and criminal alike to their logical conclusion. 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 like who dies or who gets caught. The story begins in 1975 South Boston; at this 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 opens. John Connelly (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 Connelly. “It’s an alliance.” The unholy treaty proves quite successful at first for both parties but soon spirals out of control as all crime must.
The most compelling aspect of Black Mass is Jonny Depp’s brilliant portrayal of Bulger as he undergoes a radical transformation once the deal is struck. As Connelly 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, his 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 begins a rampage of terror, killing anyone for the smallest infraction or inconvenience, including strangling the stepdaughter of a close friend before his very eyes. Emboldened by his protection from the FBI, he even pressures Connelly into giving up names of other informants and information on police actions.
As a kid growing up in South Boston, Connelly looked up to Bulger. In a way, he was just as ambitious too. “We went from playing cops and robbers as kids to doing it in real life,” Bulger smirks. After taking down the Patriarca family, Connelly 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 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 Connelly’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,” Connelly tells them. Yet evil always has its own interests at heart. God would never commit sin, but 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 confession 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 promptly returned.
Being a movie about the Irish mob in Boston, Catholic imagery is everywhere – including an allusion to an occult practice as a metaphorical title. Despite the abundance of crosses, prayers, and Roman collars, the film never actively engages the faith. 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 meaning from a sacramental worldview but refuse to allow the gospel to touch their hearts. Unfortunately, in the 21st century American Church, “many are called but few are chosen.”
The participation of Catholics in organized crime is a horrific sandal fitting of the sinister label Black Mass. Pope Francis has come down very firm on this point, excommunicating any members of the mafia after a drive-by hit killed a three-year boy in Calabria. 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.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on September 21st, 2015.