James “Whitey” Bulger is known for an ambiguous legacy. To some he is a legend and hero — a man who assisted the old and weak within his neighborhood. To the others, he is a usurper of livelihoods and a kingpin created by the FBI. How do we illustrate the life of such a figure in film? Perhaps the narrative of the snitch is the best avenue for storytelling that involves such fluid loyalties. Johnny Depp turns the charismatic crime lord into what is being called by some critics his greatest performance in Black Mass.

‘Black Mass’ Review

Black Mass is a story defined by informants. The FBI wants nothing to do with small time Jimmy Bulger who has already served time in Leavenworth and Alcatraz. They want La Cosa Nostra, the Italian mob who controls the North End of Boston. To do this, FBI agent and former Southie street kid, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), must make an alliance with his boyhood role model. What he doesn’t know, is that by making this alliance, he is trading La Cosa Nostra for an even larger problem. A problem which threatens to send Agent Connolly to prison as well.

The story begins in infamous South Boston, known to the people who live there as “Southie.” inhabited mostly by the descendants of Irish immigrants, Southie is tough and breeds criminals at a prolific rate. James Bulger comes onto the scene as a gentle man who cares for the elderly, humors his mother, and visits his son at night. Bulger teaches his son to be strong in the ways of the projects, but coddles him in ways not immediately obvious.

When Whitey is approached by Connolly about helping him rid the North End of the Italian mob, Bulger is at first repulsed by the concept of colluding with the Feds. After all, South Boston is known to have a culture of making a short life for informants and a strong disdain for law enforcement. But once he comes to the realization that informing means immunity, and immunity means he can do whatever he wants without fear of repercussion, he starts providing information about the whereabouts of La Cosa Nostra.

Depp plays a thrilling Whitey Bulger, perfectly portraying the evolution of a kingpin built by tragedy and a little too much freedom. Whitey loses his son to Reye’s Syndrome, then his mother dies. Not only is he in command of more illicit commerce in Boston after sending his enemies to a federal penitentiary, but he is also miserable and slowly losing his mind. The bodies pile up in a wider range, and John Connolly is a little too close to his childhood hero to maintain his life as a federal agent and husband.

Black Mass is a comprehensive and arresting lesson in the rules of South Boston, and the audience finds itself living in the world of suspicion and fear that grip those involved in the underworld. Fans of Goodfellas will find the film an enthralling mob story. The Winter Hill Gang of notoriety is fiercely brought to life in the is biopic.

Pictured: Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger