Saturday, October 10, 2015

Black Mass

Growing up watching the Godfather movies, I always thought gangsters were Italian. The Irish in mobster movies all seemed to be flat-footed cops, like the ones that are always chasing Bugs Bunny in the cartoons and failing to catch him, talking in an exaggerated brogue and displaying the brains of turtles. The Italian bad guys were more interesting to me than the Irish good ones. Being Don Corleone was way more cool than being Eliot Ness or, God forbid, Sergeant Joe Friday. It wasn’t until THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), with Sean Connery playing Jimmy Malone, that I found an Irish Cop who was cool enough, charismatic enough, and tough enough to make me wish I could be him (if I could do it without risking being gunned down by Al Capone’s gunsels).

Maybe we all want to be that powerful. And that tough. Say what you want about the immorality of these guys, you can’t say they are wimps, or cowards. If they have any fear (the truly crazy ones don’t, perhaps, but if you are that crazy I don’t think you last long), they never give in to it. They don’t let anyone steal a cab from them, whistle at their girlfriends, or cut in line on them at the movie queue. What freedom that kind of toughness and courage could give you! When you are a mobster, you very rarely encounter a problem you can’t buy off or kill off (indeed, the longevity of your career often depends on how long you can keep buying off and killing off your problems).

James “Whitey” Bulger is a real life Irish tough guy mobster portrayed by Johnny Depp in the 2015 movie BLACK MASS. And he’s Irish, a guy who grew up in “Southie” (South Boston) an Irish American neighborhood that has been around since before George Washington drove the British off Dorchester Heights during the Revolutionary War, those heights being where South Boston High School (ground zero for the melee over forced busing in 1974) now stands. Southie doesn’t get the same attention as Compton or Bed Stuy, but it is a ghetto nevertheless. An Irish one.

There have been portrayals of South Boston in the movies before. Matt Damon plays a tough kid from Southie in GOOD WILL HUNTING, and Casey Affleck a detective solving the disappearance of a young girl from the neighborhood in GONE BABY GONE. But Affleck, his brother Ben (who appears in the movie with Damon) and Damon were pampered rich kids not from the area. Denis Lehane, on the other hand, is from Southie (which is still among the poorest places to live in America, even with the recent rise in real estate values from the increase in demand resulting from the rehabilitation of the Boston Harbor area), and he portrays it with a chilling realism in his novel MYSTIC RIVER (later a movie directed by Clint Eastwood). Mark Wahlberg is from nearby Dorchester, and has a felony record from his gang activity as a youth.

Bulger has been portrayed before. In DEPARTED, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is loosely based on him. Costello famously tells someone early in the movie that he, like Lucifer in Paradise Lost (and Stephen Daedalus in PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN), will not serve, that he will not be a “product of my environment. My environment is a product of me.” James Woods, in the Showtime series RAY DONOVAN, plays Bulger as a ruthless old psychopath also (he murders his girlfriend when she lets slip with something that could remotely be thought of as perhaps leading to his being caught), but without the charm and intellect of Nicholson’s Costello.

Depp’s Bulger has ice blue eyes, slicked back hair, and the emotions of a lizard—i.e. none, except for a kind of all encompassing hunger for more money and power. Indeed, except for playing cards with his dear old Ma (after he does nine years in prison as a young man), whom he lets win, while she tells him “didn’t they teach you how to play cards in prison?”, he shows almost nothing, with his sunglasses on or not. But his hunger, and the anger he feels when he can’t satisfy it, does show occasionally through, like when he kills members of his own crew and strangles the stepdaughter of one of his partner’s girlfriends.

I was thinking of a parallel with Tony Soprano here, especially when I saw that Depp’s Bulger did seem to really love his wife and kid, brother and mother. And he had a sentimental feeling for the IRA too (and not just because they pay him for guns). Tony was loyal to his family like Whitey (or tries to be, until he kills his nephew Michael and forfeits his soul). Tony would never be a rat. Bulger, on the other hand, would never try therapy. Tony does, to try and quiet the voice in his head that tells him there is no way he can ever square what he is doing. There is never even a consideration for what is moral for Whitey. He can’t lose his soul because he doesn’t have one.

Bulger early on is a rising member of the Irish mob in South Boston. He kills people on both sides in the Killeen-Mullen wars, and ends up head of the Winter Hill Gang. But the Patriarca family in the North End (a subsidiary of the Gambinos in New York), in particular the Angiulo brothers, are a danger, a threat, a cause of that hunger. So Bulger teams up with a grade school friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who has now become an FBI agent. In return for intel that will help bring down the Cosa Nostra, Whitey becomes immune from prosecution (as long as he commits no crimes—ha!) Whitey ends up getting more useful information from Connolly than Connolly gives to him (even some that leads him to “rats” he blithely executes).

In the end, people notice that Whitey now rules Boston, and new blood on the force brings him and Connolly down. Whitey, though, clever as a fox (and vicious as a rabid dog) flees and is on the Most Wanted list for 12 years, until 2011. Connolly gets forty years for giving Whitey information on who is ratting Whitey out, information on how to avoid prosecution, and for withholding information about Whitey’s criminal activities from his superiors.

Towards the end of the movie, there is a scene where Whitey, just before he runs, calls his brother William, a Massachusetts state senator, to say goodbye. It made me wonder why one brother turned out good, and the other not. That is, if you think being a state senator is better than being a killer. It’s close, I know, but the point is, I don’t think you can lay what Bulger becomes at the doorstep of poverty. Whitey talks about the oppression of the British, and even the Italians, during the movie, but he is the real oppressor of South Boston. He can’t be corrupted by South Boston because he was rotten from the start, and he corrupts it. The one thing you never do in Whitey’s world is rat, and that is what he did, even as he killed people for doing the same. Someone in the movie says “You can lie to your wife or your girl, but never to a friend.” Lying is betrayal, informing the worst kind of betrayal. But maybe that is what it takes to be a mob boss. Maybe I don’t want to be a gangster after all.

© 2015 Mike Welch

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