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Family and its values

27 November 2015

Stephen Brown watches a new gangster film


SCOTT COOPER, director of Black Mass (Cert. 15), says that he wanted to make a film primarily about humans who happened to be criminals. This is not particularly novel. Who can doubt that The Godfather’s Corleones, for instance, aren’t just a closely knit family trying to make a living? Even the title of Cooper’s film (based on a book of the same name by two Boston Globe reporters) has religious connotations like this illustrious predecessor.

Instead of the New York mafia, this time it’s the South Boston Irish-American Winter Hill Gang, headed by James “Whitey” Bulger. The film, based on real-life events, begins in 1975. A barely recognisable Johnny Depp plays Whitey with an intensity of evil which makes it hard to detect any humanity lurking beneath all those pounds of make-up. Pantomime villain he is not, but his vicious methods of drug-dealing, murder, and extortion do little to suggest any hint of imago Dei in him. He ruthlessly executes his business, and woe betide anyone obstructing his way.

The film tick-boxes all the usual gangster-movie tropes, and, to be fair, it does it very well. What subverts this particular genre, however, is the advent of John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton), a former Southie resident and pal of Whitey, now working for the FBI. Old loyalties lead Connolly to cover up Whitey’s criminal ways and provide a semblance of respectability. After all, Whitey’s brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), is the Massachusetts State Senate President.

After the murder of a Winter Hill mobster by North End rivals, the Angiulo Brothers, Whitey seeks vengeance. He does so by turning FBI informant and infiltrating this Mafia gang. Depp is playing the reverse of his role in Donnie Brasco (1997), where, as an FBI agent, he inveigles his way into a set of criminals. An interesting ethical dilemma arises: alongside agreeing to something that’s self-serving, is Whitey also in some twisted kind of casuistry justifying his own actions past and present? He becomes a grass to eliminate the Angiulos, whom he perceives as the greater evil. The parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16.1-13) comes to mind, in which the children of this world are deemed by Jesus wiser than the children of light.

This may help to explain the movie’s title. If a black mass is a Satanic distortion of what Christians regard as bringing us into some kind of communion with God, then we’re witnessing in this film an unholy alliance. It’s one that is in contrast to shots we get of church services and priests. The subtitle of the original book was Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal. Cooper’s frail human beings make pacts with evil. There is tacit recognition that God created these people (in John Milton’s words) “just and right, Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall”. Those who, like Connelly, have been entrusted with administering the law can be as morally comprised as the Whiteys of this world. If we sup with the devil, a very long spoon is required.

On current release.

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