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Two of Boston's longest running stories and scandals have hit the Venice Film Festival as Hollywood movies. One of them, "Black Mass," comes with a big star, big buzz and the name James "Whitey" Bulger.
Exploring The Hoopla And Tension Surrounding 'Black Mass'
On the island of Ledo, movie stars arrive from Venice in sleek water taxis trimmed and decked in mahogany and teak. They're called motoscafi and their big engines await the throttle.
This is how Jake Gyllenhaal entered the cinema — through the hordes of paparazzi along the canal.
But Jake is no Johnny. And when Johnny Depp arrived there were thousands of fans and paparazzi.
Depp came to the red carpet with a recent string of rotten movies like "Mortdecai" and "The Lone Ranger" that have raised questions about his future. On one arm, he had his wife and on his other arm it seemed a gangster who was here in spirit, if not body.
James Bulger loved big engines. He put them in his getaway cars. And he loved islands, although his favorite was Alcatraz. He did a prison stretch there in the '60s. In Venice, where the architecture and decor are different, Bulger's story rode in like a parrot on a pirate's shoulder, because the guy who made a career of killing people and burying them may be bringing Depp back from the dead.
The movie "Black Mass" is named after the book and the devil worship used to describe the corrupt deal that brought "Whitey" Bulger into the fold of the FBI and made it work for him.
Actor Jesse Plemons playing Kevin Weeks, the young thug that Bulger recruited as his lieutenant, tells the creation tale, as well known to Greater Bostonians by now as the voyage of the Mayflower.
"In the beginning, Jim was a small town player," Weeks says in the film. "And the next thing, he's a kingpin. You know why? Cause the FBI let it happen."
Enter FBI Agent John Connolly, played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, with a not-bad Boston accent. Connolly grew up in the same South Boston project as the Bulger brothers, and the movie characterizes him as the zealous driving force who unleashes the dogs of war, namely Bulger and his co-killers.
"I can help you, Jimmy ... It's an alliance," says Connolly in the film.
That's the Black Mass, for Bulger was the devil himself, a psychopath the FBI decided would succeed while the Mafia would fail.
To get Bulger right, the coal-eyed Depp is transformed by makeup artists into a face that's all menace: eerie skull, penetrating ice blue eyeballs and slicked back hair that looks like wire cables.
But makeup isn't acting. And if Depp looks like a lizard, he is pretty much a prisoner of the mask. Although in real-life, Bulger was not much more than a lizard.
Depp, who Bulger would not talk to, says he shot from the hip to get Bulger's character down.
"He was complicated ... he would take in little old ladies' groceries into the house ... and 10 minutes later, he might be bashing someone's skull in. But to him, that was what he knew. That was all he knew," Depp said.
If caring for your mother, loving your son and being nice to little old ladies makes a killer complicated, call Bulger complicated. But not that complicated. The range of his character and Depp's performance extend from second base to short, not first to third.
The murders come with close-ups. Bulger strangles men and women, strafes his victims and shoots them in the head.
"It's not what you do. It's when and where you do it. And who you do it to or with," Bulger says in the film.
That's the advice Bulger gives his 6-year-old son. And, he adds, if no one sees it, it didn't happen.
But the whens, wheres and whos in this fictionalized account make hash of the sprawling real story. It suggests Bulger became what he was because his son died and then his mother died, too. It imbues Connolly with too much influence on both Bulger brothers, and it puts too much blame on Connolly alone. Truth is, no one in the FBI ever challenged Connolly directly. But many benefited from the "devil's deal" and either helped out or looked the other way.
As the day of reckoning approaches in the film, a federal prosecutor puts this question to Connolly.
"How come no one has nailed 'Whitey' Bulger? He seems to be involved in every crime in the city and yet the bureau keeps saying he's clean."
"What's Bulger done?"
"What's he done? Everything."
That he got away with everything for so long, and then even got away, points not to just Connolly, but to all the others who empowered, enabled and emboldened him. Some even took Bulger's gifts and, according to prosecution witnesses, his money. Yet, in the interest of simplifying the story, the movie ignores the institutional corruption inside the bureau and the Department of Justice.
In "Spotlight," the film about pedophile priests protected by the Catholic Church, Boston Globe reporters uncover the protection given from the top down by the cardinal and bishops.
In Venice, that film won three minutes of ovation after its first public showing. In comparison, "Black Mass" got only brief and polite applause, even with Johnny Depp in the house.
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