Editor’s Notes: Black Mass opens in wide theatrical release tomorrow, September 18th.
For a film that can never seem to decide what its narrative thrust and point of view are, Black Mass sure is riveting as hell. There does appear to be an inherent narrative confusion brewing within Scott Cooper’s chronicling of the disastrous backdoor alliance between the FBI and notorious Boston mob king James “Whitey” Bulger, a battle within its bones to determine its ultimate narrative focus and thematic thrust. And yet there is something that crackles between these characters, something propulsive in their downward spiral, an enigmatic dark cloud hovering over the proceedings that is endlessly engaging.
For a film that can never seem to decide what its narrative thrust and point of view are, Black Mass sure is riveting as hell.
That “something” has everything to do with tone, and it is the one true signature that Cooper brings to this material, which might otherwise reek of a standard mob drama…and occasionally still does. There are occasional derivative shades in this adaptation of the 2001 book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, because of course there would be, since the mob saga is about as well worn as any other film genre outside of the Western (and in many ways, the mob saga is a subgenre of the Western). There are sequences that drift from the core of Cooper’s style, scenes in which multiple narrative tracks play over rollicking crime flashbacks set to jazzy music while the camera pans, the result of a filmic curriculum with Martin Scorsese at its center. And yet the film’s bread-and-butter isn’t beholden to any particular source influence, creating its own off-kilter rhythm in a decidedly dreary world. It’s hard to wash off the grime but harder to shake off the doom.
Working from a screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, Cooper attempts to broaden his dramatic net in his third feature, but almost narrows his ultimate thematic preoccupation. His first two films, Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, focused on the self-imposed battle of the tortured soul, weighing the merits of redemption versus destruction. While Black Mass is a more epic undertaking from a storytelling perspective, “redemption” isn’t a word in its thematic vocabulary. There are plenty of tortured souls in the film, but now Cooper seems intent on exploring what happens when the soul projects said torture onto the outside world, infecting the environment like a cancer…quite frankly, like a black mass.
There are plenty of tortured souls in the film, but now Cooper seems intent on exploring what happens when the soul projects said torture onto the outside world.
The cancer at the film’s center is Bulger himself, played by Johnny Depp in a role that has already been tagged as a “serious actor comeback” and a certain Oscar contender. Bulger is a dangerous sociopath who slowly slips into lethal psychopathy over the course of a decades-long hidden alliance with the FBI’s Boston field office. FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) tags Bulger, leader of the Irish mob in South Boston, as an informant who could be the key to taking down the Italian mafia in Boston’s North End. Connolly is a former Southie kid himself, one who hung out with the Bulger boys – both “Whitey” (though his friends call him “Jimmy”) and his older brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), who grew up to become a Massachusetts State Senator. Thus forms a triad between the State House, the Boston FBI office, and the Irish mob, conducting grown-up business but all based on rules established as unruly youngsters.
There is an intriguing psychic link between “Jimmy” and Connolly, like their convergence leads them down parallel paths to different iterations of hell. Black Mass doesn’t follow the standard mob movie course of epic rise and destructive fall – for Bulger, that is. That path is reserved for Connolly, who starts as a high-minded, gung-ho federal agent with huge ambition but swiftly devolves into a simpering mob shill who recklessly fronts his signature operation long after it devolves into farce. Bulger, on the other hand, isn’t given the standard treatment…because he isn’t the standard character. In fact, he seems like the one figure Cooper can’t seem to crack, an enigma of vitriol and violence. As a result, the character hovers over the narrative like a rogue specter, his influence felt even in scenes where he isn’t a physical participant. Depp’s performance further informs this notion, his threatening presence lingering even when off-screen. He’s like a discriminating ball of unstoppable rage; his finger is always pressed firmly on the trigger, but he can somehow control whether the bullets are released. And he functions like – forgive my choice of words – a godfather around which an enormous cast of brilliant performers turns. I needn’t get into the rhetorical trap of listing an endless string of actor names, but in a massive ensemble, not a performance is wasted and everyone gets their moment.
What’s the result of a film with that gives moments to each member of its huge cast and possesses a central character that functions as part subject and part object? A bit of an unfocused narrative, one that is aiming to reconcile many stories within a central through line. Cooper cut his teeth on intimate character studies, and he often seems a little too tied to the procedural trappings of this much larger story; it’s no wonder he savors every opportunity to give each character a moment. But that also lets the story drift onto multiple tracks, and we wonder if this is just a straight fact-based retelling with some shades of character, or if it wants to dig deeper but is held back by an adherence to history. The answer lies somewhere in between, but even if it never quite reaches its peak synthesis, Black Mass is nevertheless enthralling cinema, a captivating dark cloud that hovers over our consciousness and lets nary a shred of light can sneak in.
Black Mass is nevertheless enthralling cinema, a captivating dark cloud that hovers over our consciousness and lets nary a shred of light can sneak in.