by Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster
This film truly reflects its title’s name. The “black Mass” was a term describing a ceremony worshiping Satan. There’s enough evil in this film to last a lifetime.
Director Scott Cooper has served up a brutally graphic biopic of James “Whitey” Bulger, a Boston hoodlum arrested only four years ago. He had been on the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade.
Johnny Depp is way too believable as Whitey. Benedict Cumberbatch is Whitey’s brother who is an upstanding citizen. The Bulgers come from “Southie”—the rough, heavily Irish Roman Catholic South Boston neighborhood known for crime and despair.
Whitey grew up with John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who is now an FBI agent. It’s very clear the bonds among those from Southie transcend reason, good sense and the law. In many ways you see how greed coupled with lust for power and control regardless of which side you’re on; the law or the outlaw.
There are times in this movie that you have to remind yourself it is based on a true story. There are tapes and transcripts describing in great detail the horror inflicted on Whitey’s many victims. And his pact with the devil—or should we say the FBI—allows him to get away with murder, nearly.
This film was released on the same weekend many Christians were hearing an epistle read in church a portion of the Letter of James (4:1-2): “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”
It was quite eerie to see that played out on screen.
Whitey’s relationship with God was a puzzle. The scene at his mother’s funeral in their Catholic parish church shows Whitey standing alone in the choir loft, literally distancing himself from the moment. But towards the end, when all around him seems collapsing, he’s sitting in a front pew in the same church seemingly in prayer, or at least deep thought.
This is a violent film with few characters who are sympathetic. A few. But it clearly shows the depths of darkness the human spirit can discover when a conscience is lacking or cravings take over reason.
That Sunday’s reading from James (4:7-8) ended with some sound advice: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”
Bonnie Anderson is a very active lay leader in her parish, diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church. She is an experienced community organizer and lives in suburban Detroit. Dan Webster is an Episcopal priest in Baltimore, Maryland and a former broadcast news executive. But don’t expect only east coast urban perspectives here. As it turns out, they both grew up in Southern California. They blog about films and faith at Faith Reels.