Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 8; Language 8; Sex 7/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and brings forth lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole which he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends.
Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
For a little over two hours I felt that I was staring Evil in its face, as well as witnessing its corrupting powers on a nominally good man. Director Scott Cooper and scriptwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth have adapted their strange but true story from the book of the same name by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Evil is embodied in James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), and the corrupted good man is F.B.I. agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Both grew up in the mean streets Boston’s Irish Southside, but followed very different paths after their teen years.
Their stories are framed, like that of the main character in Citizen Kane, by a series of testimonies—but these are given by the various thugs who had murdered and stolen for Bulger in law enforcement interrogation rooms. Each crook, seeking a plea bargain that will reduce his prison sentence, insists that he is not breaking the strict law of the streets against “ratting.”
“Whitey” Bulger in 1975 is the ruthless head of the Winter Hill gang running vaious rackets in Boston’s working-class, predominantly Irish Southside. Connolly is the rising FBI agent who both still harbors good feeling toward the man who once protected him when they were youth and to put behind bars the Italian Cosa Nostra in the north of the city. It takes a lot of persuading, but he manages to talk his more cautious superiors into using Bulger for information about the Mafia’s activities that would enable them to arrest, hold, and convict the hated “Italians.” Whitey Bulger thinks it over and agrees, though insisting that he is not becoming a “rat” but merely engaging in a business deal to eliminate the competition. It turns out to be a bargain made with the Devil, especially for Connolly.
As Bulger’s power grows so does the number of his victims, some killed at his orders by his goons, many dying at his own hands, two literally so when he strangles them. He is devoted to his mother and younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), the latter a Senator who serves as the President of the Massachusetts Senate. He is married to Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson), and dotes on their young son Douglas (Luke Ryan), but few would call him a good role model, as we see in the following exchange at the family table. Learning that the boy has gotten in trouble at school because of a fight, he tells him, “Hey, buddy. I need you to listen very carefully to what I’m saying because there are lessons again and again throughout your whole life. You gotta learn from these things, right? It’s not what you do, it’s when and where you do it, and who you do it to or with. If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.” Lindsey Cyr objects, “Jimmy, he’s six. You really think that’s the best thing to be telling you kid?” Bulger replies, “Yeah.” What she does not know is that her husband follows his own advice, many criminal cases against him having been closed because, as we see in photos of their bodies, there are no witnesses.
Johnny Depp the serious actor, who has been away far too long sidetracked by a Caribbean vacation filled with silly antics, is back, his hair almost thinned out, and steel blue eyes as cold as ice quickly sizing up all who cross his path, sometimes deciding that they are a threat, and therefore quickly eliminating them. The shootings might be too realistic for some, with bullets puncturing skulls so that blood and pieces of brains spatter walls or the window of a car. And yet, as mentioned above, with his family he can be tender, especially when little Douglas comes down with a deadly fever that calls for hospital care. The crime boss discovers that there are some things in life that his brute force is useless.
Bulger enjoys power and making people squirm, as in a dinner table scene when he asks his associate John Morris (David Harbour) about the recipe for the steak he has served up. Morris says it is a family secret, but soon tells it when Bulger persists. The latter coldly says, “…You said to me this is a family secret, and you gave it up to me, boom just like that. You spill the secret family recipe today, maybe you spill a little something about me tomorrow, hm?” Poor Morris, knowing what has happened to others who aroused the boss’s ire, shows his fear. Bulger lets the ominous conversation go on a bit further, and then, with a nasty laugh, reveals that he was “just f—king” with him.
John Connolly has to work hard to keep his fellow FBI agents off Bulger’s back, the gangster literally getting away with murder with his protector covering for him. Then new federal prosecutor, Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) returns to his native Boston, fully intending to clean things up. He is puzzled as to why Bulger is not one of their primary targets. He does not buy Connolly’s story about the valuable evidence Bulger has been giving them. Poring over the many investigative reports of his staff, he notices that much of the evidence supposedly coming from Bulger, has actually come from other sources. Connolly finds himself working under a cloud, one that is a harbinger of the storm to come.
Matters are not going well at the Connolly home, either. His wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) tells him she does not like the change that has come over him. He denies this, insisting that his relationship with Whitey Bulger is part of his job. But when Bulger insists that they socialize, she draws a line. She serves up supper to the guests and then retires to her room. Bulger, asking where she is, goes up to her room, and in one of the most tense scenes in the film all but rapes her, telling her that she is to support her husband. His cold eyes are as menacing as a cobra’s as he fondles her while delivering his warning that she become more accommodating.
For those who know their classic movies the situation of the two anti-heroes is very much similar to the two characters in the classic film Angels With Dirty Faces. But the film’s excessive amount of strong language and blood-spurting violence would never have been permitted in the Thirties, and the rank sentimentality of that earlier picture is nowhere to be found in this frank look into evil. As indicated earlier, Johnny Depp gives the part his all, and Joel Edgerton is also excellent as the good man gone bad. The supporting cast also is fine, from the menacing mugs of the thugs to those working the other side of the law (Kevin Bacon even has a small role as one of Connolly’s fellow agents). The end notes about the fate of Bulger and Connolly and their cohorts are fascinating to read, calling to mind the psalmist who apparently worried about the wicked prospering so long despite their terrible deeds. Not nearly as neat and tidy an ending as in Angels With Dirty Faces. Both men did at last reap what they sowed, to bring to mind Paul’s warning (Galatians 6:8), but it took a long time for them to reap their just reward, and a lot of people were hurt or killed along the way.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Oct. issue of VP.