CGB Review of Black Mass (As Originally Published on The Catholic Response)

The second greatest trick the Devil has ever pulled is appearing in broad daylight to a world that is too desensitized to notice.

This is my review of Black Mass, as originally published on The Catholic Response (TCR).


Based on the 2001 book titled, Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal co-written by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass is the true story of notorious Boston mobster Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, the leader of the Irish-American Winter Hill Gang who goes from small town hoodlum to full-on kingpin; he’s like the Godfather of Boston.  In the 1970’s, Bulger formed an alliance with the FBI through his childhood friend/agent, John Connelly.  The purpose was to have Bulger be an informant and help the FBI nab the main Italian-American gang, the Angiulo Brothers, who had Mafia ties.  This allowed Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang to run amok and do what they pleased behind the FBI’s back. 

The Hits

If you want to see some superb acting, you’re going to enjoy this film.  All of the actors are at the top of their game.

Joel Egerton was a pleasant surprise as the scumbag John Connelly.  His descent into moral ambiguity and selfishness was illustrated perfectly by Egerton’s thoughtful performance.  His unwillingness to see Whitey Bulger’s clear-as-day deception is a perfect example of William Wilberforce’s poignant words, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”

I owe Johnny Depp a thousand apologies for discounting him.  I had lost hope after seeing him play too many cartoonish characters.  Johnny, you need to be picking roles like these more often.  He is unrecognizable as Jimmy Bulger.   The choice to give him charcoal gray eyes and stiff, thin hair gives him a menacing presence throughout.  Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger is the Devil incarnate, the Prince of Darkness walking in flesh.   What makes him frightening is how he is both very human and demonic at the same time.  He’s not a mentally-unstable lunatic who is incapable of empathy.  He is capable of making the choice to love another person, such as the mother of his only child and his brother.  He is capable of caring for others and being loyal to them.  Living honorably is not out of his reach.  He could turn his life around and do what is right if he wanted to.  So why doesn’t he?  Because he lives by his own code.   The personal boundaries of others mean nothing to him.  The world is his stage and everyone in his life is an uneasy audience member who must comply.  He makes rules that are pleasing to him and if you don’t go along with his self-serving sanctions, you are dead.   He tells his son, “It’s not what you do, it’s when and where you do it, and who you do it to or with.  If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”  Remember this quote, because I’m going to talk about it later.

I happen to be a huge fan of The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch.   When we are first introduced to Billy Bulger, I was very happy to see that the actor playing Senator Bulger is Benedict Cumberbatch.  Like in the Imitation Game, Cumberbatch delivers a great performance.  Then again, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch; you could cast him as a pizza guy and he would still steal the show.

The music is amazing.  It’s a dark, sweeping score that settles into your ears and chills you to the bone.  The cinematography is gives the movie a sense of place.  You really feel like you’re treading the damp streets of Boston, looking over your shoulder for the shadow of Whitey Bulger.  There are so many memorable scenes with powerful performances that I wish I could do a scene-by-scene analysis of the film.  For now, I’ll just say that I’m still thinking about a lot of the scenes long after I’ve seen the movie.

The Misses

Joel Egerton’s character John Connelly never tires of reminding we, the audience, that he’s a “Southie,” that he grew up with Jimmy and Billy Bulger and their loyalty knows no bounds.   Repetition gets annoying and can hinder the cinematic experience.

This movie is trying to be both a gangster movie and a character study of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, but places more emphasis on the gangster crime drama element than the character study.  American Sniper and The Imitation Game succeeded in delving into the psychology of Chris Kyle and Alan Turing, but Black Mass shows us that Whitey Bulger is the Devil on earth without getting inside his head.  I know that he plays by his own rules, but I don’t know what led him to be that way.   I know that he has an unquenchable thirst for violence, but I don’t know what motivates his bloodlust.  Then again, it could be like the Screwtape Letters, where trying to get into the anti-hero’s head is basically giving Satan himself an invitation into your brain.

The Catholic Response

This movie is the greatest portrayal of Satan that I have ever seen.  The entire movie reminded me of 1 Peter 5:8,“Be sober and vigilant.  Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  One of Whitey Bulger’s tactics is luring his victims to a calm, quiet location, making them feel that they are safe with him before he violently strangles them to death.  If one of his associates crosses him, he will accept their apologies and trick them into thinking they have been forgiven.  That is when Bulger will put a bullet through said person’s head.  Like Amy Elliot Dunne in last year’s Gone Girl, once Bulger knows you, your life is his to ruin.  As Christians, we acknowledge that this is how Satan operates; he seeks to command our lives by enticing us into a false sense of security the way a spider wraps its meal into a warm webbed cocoon so that it rests peacefully while being eaten alive.
Another similarity between Whitey Bulger and Satan is how they use their words to justify their actions.  Throughout the film, Bulger uses careful wording to make his actions seem like they are intended for a greater good.   Even in the third act, he tells someone, “You’re going to hear a lot of stuff about me—that I killed people and did a bunch of stuff—that’s not true.  You know me.”   He agrees to help the FBI nab the Italian mob, making himself seem like an agent of good when in reality he is continuing to build his own evil empire behind their backs.  John 8:44 speaks of Satan in this way: “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.”  Hmm, a murderer from the beginning…looks like Satan and Bulger have plenty in common.  Remember that line that Bulger says to his only child, “It’s not what you do, it’s when and where you do it, and who you do it to or with.  If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen”?   He is basically saying that the morality of an act, whether it is inherently good and evil, is dependent on the circumstances surrounding the act in question; this is one of Satan’s favorite lies.  Also notice how Bulger is telling this to an impressionable child; Satan also targets the young and naive.  He tempted Eve when she was young and vulnerable.  He attacked Saint Padre Pio ever since he was five-years old.  The youthful Saint Gemma Galgani awoke to Satan’s hands on her bed.  Satan starts his temptations early and will not relent, especially when it comes to targeting God’s most faithful servants.
During my second viewing of the film, I noticed something that I hadn’t picked up on; There are three times where Bulger is seen standing near an image of Jesus, and one time where he is close to a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.   When he is near the Fatima statue, he is turned away from it and standing in the darkened area of a hallway while Our Lady is facing the light.  Meanwhile, in the three times where he is standing by a picture of Jesus, his back is always turned away from Him.  The one time that he does say Jesus’ name, it is hissed through his teeth in a moment of anger.
Our Faith assures us that Satan despises Our Blessed Mother more than anything, and that he flees at the very mention of Jesus’ name.

It’s been said that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.  However, I think the second greatest trick the Devil has pulled off is appearing in broad daylight to a world that is too desensitized to recognize him.  Today’s secular audience will probably never see Whitey Bulger as a type of the Prince of Darkness in the flesh, and if that’s not a sign of the times… I don’t know what is.

That being said, I think that it would serve a lot of practicing Christians well to see Black Mass.  If there’s any movie that shows the darkness that we are up against it, it’s this one.  Johnny Depp’s menacing performance makes Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger more monster than man and depicts the true nature of Satan’s power.  Seeing the enemy is the first step in knowing how to fight back.

Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina and Saint Monica of Hippo, pray for us.

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