"Strictly criminal": How the Boston I knew where I knew guys who knew guys is there but not there in Black Mass
Mannion Family Movie Night feature presentation. Friday, March 11, 2016. Posted March 19.
South Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp, right) with his lieutenants making plans over beers at Triple O’s Lounge, one of Bulger’s favorite hangouts, in a scene from the movie Black Mass that could have played out in real life with me and some friends having lunch at a nearby table.
The Boston depicted in Black Masswas there and not there when I lived in Boston. You heard stories. Got hints. And odds were, you didn’t come into contact with it first hand yourself, you knew someone.
Who knew someone.
At the movie theater I worked at, I knew a guy. Who knew a guy. Who knew a guy.
I ever needed a favor, my guy said, one of his guys who knew guys who knew guys would be glad to help out.
The proffered favors included drugs, girls, placing bets, securing loans to cover the money lost placing bets, and, I’m pretty sure my guy meant to imply, getting someone whacked. He was bragging. He wanted me to know he was connected. At the time, early 1980s, you were either connected to one of the Irish mobs or to the Mafia, and they were connected to each other in the business of knocking each other off by way of carving up territory.
I knew another guy. He knew guys. The guys he knew knew guys, of course, but the guys they knew were their fathers and uncles and older brothers and cousins who one way or another had been involved in the gang wars that led to the rise of Whitey Bulger, the South Boston mob boss played by Johnny Depp in Black Mass who turned FBI informant while still continuing to run his often violent criminal operations, a mutually beneficial relationship in which agents for the Bureau literally helped Bulger get away with murder. One of the guys’ father was dead, gunned down though I don’t think killed by Whitey himself. Another’s was in prison. A third’s had been a cop almost certainly on the take. Not sure if he was on Whitey’s payroll or in the pocket of a rival. The father of the guy I knew had owned a bar he’d sold because he didn’t know which side to pay the protection money, Whitey and the Winter Hill Gang or the Italian mobsters trying to muscle in on Winter Hill’s vending machine racket. Some of his friends, my guy’s friends, were seriously considering applying for entry-level positions and apprenticeships as bagmen, legbreakers, pimps, drug dealers, and bookmakers. The gangs were always hiring. The factories and construction companies weren’t.
Point is, if you wanted to find your way into Black Mass’ Boston, Whitey Bulger’s Boston, you didn’t have to look hard to find it. Just being a student having to work a part-time job and always on the lookout for a cheap meal could take you there.
One time I found my way into it without looking for it or knowing I was there.
Some friends and I went for lunch at a bar in Southie we heard about served a very cheap seafood lunch plate. Lobster roll. Chowder. A vegetable. Steamers for the table. Five bucks.
I don’t know if Whitey was there when we were, but it’s a real possibility. He and some of his lieutenants might have been there having lunch and discussing business at a nearby table, just as in the photo up top.
Black Mass isn’t so much a true crime story---and it’s not as true as it could have been, anyway. Too much is left out, there are too many elisions, too much that’s condensed or combined---because there’s not much a story to tell about Bulger’s criminality. His crimes, including his murders, vicious as they were, were banal. They were mostly opportunistic or impulsive, things he decided on the spot needed to be done as routine matters of business or because he felt like it at the moment. In Black Mass, they aren’t portrayed as pieces of a grand scheme or as steps on a descent deeper and deeper into hell. They’re simply episodes.
And Black Mass isn’t a biography in the sense that it relates the history of a person in relation with the particular time and place in which he lived. The period during which the movie takes place, 1975 to 1991, is visually present in the clothing and cars but it doesn’t figure in the events or in the thinking of the characters. Boston is mainly just a backdrop. Bulger doesn’t seem to live in Boston. He just operates there.
His relationship with the city as a particular place and to its citizens in general is the same as his relationships with anybody and anything not part of him and his, which is, as business associate and supposed friend asked to describe the nature of their dealings says, "strictly criminal."
This is all more by way of observation than criticism. Like I said. Black Mass isn’t about the time and the place. It’s about the corrupt and criminal dealings of two men whose intertwined stories happened to play out at a time and in a place I happened to be while it was playing out. I would like to have seen more of that time and that place and not only for nostalgia’s sake.
The repetitiveness of the scenes of Bulger being Bulger might have been mitigated. The motives of the corrupt FBI agent who forms "an alliance" with Whitey, John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton), his sense of having been deprived and denied his due and his desire to get some of his own back and to be seen as a big man in the eyes of the town and the people who’d failed to recognize and reward his worth when he was growing up, would make more than dramatic sense.
In my Boston, student Boston, which overlapped with bohemian Boston, tourist Boston, and various parts of ethnic Boston, depending on where we got jobs and the neighborhoods where we could afford to rent apartments, criminal Boston did its business but generally out of sight and out of mind. There were, of course, sections of town where the criminal and the legitimate did business openly side by side with more than occasional overlaps and with minimal conflicts of interest. This is how it was possible for families to have one side who were all cops and teachers and nurses and construction workers and another that was pretty much all criminals and it causing only minor awkwardness at weddings and funerals. And it explains how there could be one family in particular in which one son would grow up to be the most powerful crime boss in the city and another son would grow up to be one of the most powerful politicians in the state not named Kennedy or O’Neill and few Boston natives would wonder about it or ask how the brothers arranged it so that neither got in the other’s way or they didn’t cause each other any embarrassment or trouble.
This aspect of life in Boston is largely left out of Black Mass and going by the taking-it-for-granted treatment the relationship the movie gives the relationship between Whitey Bulger and his brother William Bulger, who really was the president of the Massachusetts State Senate, you might conclude the director Scott Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth are like those Boston natives who were so used to the legitimate and the criminal being mixed up together they’d long ago given up any effort to try to sort them out and just took it for granted that a crime boss and a political boss were two sides of the same coin to the point of not even being curious about how that worked.
More to the point, how one brother ends up a criminal and one of their boyhood friends an agent for the FBI with nobody thinking there’s anything extraordinary about it isn’t part of the movie’s story.
Black Mass's map of Boston is tightly circumscribed. The movie's geography is pretty much limited to Bulger’s South Boston hangouts---which included his favorite killing field and burial ground---and the FBI’s offices in Government Center, which you wouldn’t know from watching the movie is an easy walk from the North End where the Italian mobsters they needed Bulger’s help to track and take down had their headquarters. It’s also an easy walk to Beacon Hill, the financial district, the waterfront, Quincy Marketplace, and (when I was living there and they were still in business) the movie theater where I worked and knew those guys who knew guys. It’s also not far from the State House where Billy Bulger presided over the state senate and no distance at hall from the mayor’s office. They’re in the same building complex. The building the movie shows as the cover shot when the scene switches to FBI headquarters is the City Hall.
Political Boston, student Boston, working Boston, tourist Boston---the Bostons I knew and Bulger’s criminal Boston served and preyed upon---are there only to be glimpsed in Black Mass.
It’s there but not there. We hear stories. We get hints. Characters know people.
Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper, screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jezz Butterworth. Based on the bookBlack Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, David Harbour, Juno Temple, Cory Stoll, and W. Earl Brown. Rated R. Now available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon.