Guilt and pleasure

  • Johnny Depp as real-life gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger
  • Depp with Joel Edgerton, who plays the FBI agent John Connolly, in a still from the film

“Father, I need to confess.”

“May the good Lord have mercy on your soul. Tell me, child: What is it?”

“Well, father, I have not been a good Catholic.”

“That's terrible, son. What makes you feel so?”

“Father, I went for Black Mass. And I quite enjoyed it.”


“Not the real black mass, of course. It was that new film, with Johnny Depp playing the role of real-life gangster James Bulger. The “Whitey” Bulger, the small-time crook who went on to become the crime lord of Boston in the eighties?

More silence.



“May I not continue?”

“You may, yes. But, why was the film called Black Mass?”

“Well, you see, Bulger was quite evil—a devil of a man. Murder, racketeering, drugs, extortion, money laundering—there were few sins Bulger did not commit. He was born and bred in Mass.... Massachusetts. And he was a Catholic who went to church. And the FBI made a Faustian deal with him. Hence the title, I think.”

“Faustian deal, you say?”

“Yes, father. The FBI wanted Bulger to snitch on the Mafia. The Italian mafia. In exchange, Bulger was allowed to do whatever he wanted to do.”

“Why the Italians? They are our people. Good, church-going Catholics. The Corleones, the Tattaglias…”

“Bulger was Irish. He was Catholic, too.”

“Ah, well.”

“Father, if I may ask: what is it with Catholics and gangsters? Hollywood seems to be obsessed with our kind of mafia—Italian, Irish and Polish. The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Departed, The Town, The Iceman… all of them have Catholic gangsters.”

“The Russians, son. Eastern Promises had nothing to do with Catholics.”

“The exception that proves the rule, father.”

“Get on with the confession, son!”

blackmass-benedict Benedict Cumberbatch as Senator William Bulger

“Well, father, the thing is: I liked Black Mass. And I loved the performances. It’s a first-rate cast, you know. I liked Bulger, his friends, and that FBI agent John Connolly, who sells his soul to them. I liked everybody, except the one good guy in the film: Bulger’s younger brother, Senator William Bulger.”

“What did you not like? The performance, or the character?”

“Both. You know, the brothers are poles apart. One is a squeaky clean politician, the other is a mob boss. It would have been great if the film focused more on that dichotomy.”

“Shame, that you were not there to tell the filmmakers that. As it is, the film is not good?”

“Well, what did I say father? I liked it. I liked it for the performances: Joel Edgerton is brilliant as the FBI agent, and so are most of the actors. As William, Benedict Cumberbatch is wasted, though. He doesn’t get much time on screen. But the big news is that Depp is back in form—not as clown, but as a serious actor.”

“Oscar nomination?”

“No way. The film is not that good. Depp’s character is one-note. He is like a snake—he hisses and hisses through the film. But that hiss, by god, is a thing to behold.”

“Son, don’t take the name of the Lord in vain—”

“Too much prosthetics involved, you know. Too much latex on his forehead to show Bulger’s bald plate.”

“One shouldn’t use latex on one’s body, in one way or the other.”

“Ah, father. Also, the film is a solid genre picture—nothing more, nothing less. It has no sweeping statements to make, and its story has nothing that we haven’t seen already, in other films. It’s quite like the movie you would play on your DVD on a lazy, soggy holiday, when you have nothing better to do.”

“Well, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”

“Yes, father, But this devil is pretty good at what he does.”

“Devils usually are.”

“The problem is: While I liked watching Depp as Bulger, I can’t shake off the feeling that it was unnecessarily violent, that there was too much blood and gore.”

“Was there?”

“Yes, there was. The Godfather is a fairy tale next to this film. Bless the Italians! The Corleones of this world belong to a different level. They have their have capos, consiglieri and the works. They have systems; they have class. The Irish don’t.”


“In Black Mass, the mechanics of the plot feels irrelevant; only the bloodletting does. When Depp, or Bulger, is shown killing someone, the scenes focus on how he does it—not why he does it. It would never happen in a great film. As a wise man said, a Peckinpah film can use violence as a signifier of moral rot, and a Scorcese film a mortification of the flesh to reflect a spiritual state of being. With Black Mass, and its director Scott Cooper, violence only serves to show, again and again, just how evil the lead character is.”


“Herein lies the moral dilemma, father. I have been asked to review the film. I liked the film, despite the violence and patchy parts of it. But I have doubts about recommending it. You see, by recommending Black Mass, I would be recommending a session with the devil.”

“And this is your confession—your moral dilemma, so to speak?”


“Some dilemma. I suggest you read the review posted on our Catholic News Service website.”


“Not now. Later… Or wait, I will just read it to you. It says, ‘Despite its indirectly religious title, and the unmistakably Catholic atmosphere in which its characters move, Black Mass devotes relatively little attention to faith… So it’s not irreverence but rampant indifference to human life that may give even the heartiest ticket buyers pause.’”

“So, the film is bad?”

“It is, I suppose. The folks over there have rated it L—which is short for limited adult audience. Or just don’t bother.”

“An L! Well, that is a surprise. If I remember right, Taxi Driver received it, and A Clockwork Orange, and The Good, Bad and The Ugly.”

“All junk, I suppose.”

“Uh-huh.” Sniff.

“So I take it that I have solved your little dilemma.”

“Yes, father. You did, indeed.”

“So, are you going to recommend the film?”


“Son, are you going to recommend the film?”

More silence.

“Are you, son?

And I said, “You talking to me?”

Film: Black Mass
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson
Rating: 4

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The Week

Topics : #review | #Hollywood

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