To almost anyone who lived in Boston in the '80s and '90s, and even to many who didn't, James J. "Whitey" Bulger was a peculiarly powerful folk villain, a truly bad guy who, with the help of his shady organized-crime cohorts, had murdered people, buried body after body, and then, in 1994, simply vanished. We never completely forgot about him -- he was too genuinely bad to forget. And then, in a plot you couldn't put into a USA Network show for fear people would howl at it, Whitey Bulger resurfaced in 2011 in Santa Monica, where he had been quietly hiding out with his longtime girlfriend.
Joe Berlinger's astute documentary tells what happened after that: Hoping to save their own skins, a number of Whitey's old associates stepped forward to squawk, among them Kevin Weeks, a beefy ex-bouncer whose grand jury testimony helped prosecutors put Bulger away for 19 murders and numerous instances of racketeering. Weeks, as interviewed here, is a jovially threatening presence, a regular guy with a supremely dark side: He describes the South Boston dive where he got his start in organized crime as "a neighborhood bah, kind of a rough bah," but the accent isn't so funny once he starts revealing grisly details of the horrific deeds he helped Bulger commit, crimes that, for years, Bulger got away with.
Berlinger covers lots of territory, including heartrending accounts from the family members of some of Bulger's victims. The whole exercise is fascinating, if vaguely unsatisfying: Bulger himself doesn't appear, of course; at age 84, he's currently serving two consecutive life terms, plus five years. Somehow, it just doesn't seem long enough.