Editor’s Notes: Black Mass opens in wide theatrical release today, September 18th, 2015. For an additional perspective on the film, read Black Mass: Riveting as Hell.
Go ahead. Call it a comeback. After cratering with Mortdecai and a string of near misses or outright flops, Johnny Depp – or to be more accurate, his career – was in desperate straights, floundering on poorly chosen roles and overly mannered, dubiously performed, heavily made-up roles in sub-mediocre films (e.g., The Lone Ranger). Depp bounces back in Black Mass, a middling, disappointing crime drama directed by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace, Crazy Heart). A seemingly random collection of gangster clichés and tropes, albeit clichés and tropes based on fact, Black Mass fails to leave a lasting impression or contribution to the genre with the exception of Depp’s cold-eyed, dead-toothed performance as minor crime boss and all-around sociopath James “Whitey” Bulger, a South Boston gangster who eluded capture for the better part of two decades.
A seemingly random collection of gangster clichés and tropes, albeit clichés and tropes based on fact, Black Mass fails to leave a lasting impression or contribution to the genre. . .
Captured in 2011, convicted of multiple counts of murder and extortion in 2013, and sentenced to prison for the remainder of his natural life (he’s 86), the Bulger we meet in Black Mass isn’t yet the crime boss he’d become, ruling South Boston through violence or the threat thereof, but a minor gangster, the head of a small extortion crew, but it’s more than enough to draw the attention of John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), Bulger’s childhood friend. An ambitious FBI agent, Connelly pitches Bulger on an alliance. In exchange for sharing key information about Bulger’s rivals, specifically the Italian mob, the FBI gives Bulger a two-decade-long get-out-of-jail-free card. Bulger refuses to call what he’s doing “informing” (to do so would be to admit breaking the criminal code of silence), instead calling his relationship with Connelly and the FBI an alliance. Connelly sees their relationship as the perfect means to advancing his career within the bureau. Bulger only has to refrain from murdering his allies for the alliance to hold, but Bulger, a cruel, capricious man with a violent temper, breaks that promise almost immediately.
Not surprisingly, Bulger uses his relationship with Connelly and the FBI to consolidate and expand his South Boston power base. Despite his notoriety, however, Bulger’s criminal endeavors do little, if any, harm to his older brother, William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), the president of the state senate and arguably the most powerful politician in Boston. In a predictable plot development lifted from other, better gangster films, Whitey’s empathy deficit doesn’t extend to his elderly mother – whom he treats with respect, deference, and even kindness – and his preteen son with his longtime girlfriend, Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson), but that empathy doesn’t last, leaving Depp to play Whitey in essentially two keys, quietly, intensely menacing (and brooding) and psychopathically violent, murdering rivals and anyone he considers a liability or loose end without a moment’s hesitation.
Mark Mallouk’s and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay sidesteps the why and the how of Bulger’s sociopathic behavior, refusing to indulge in a retroactive, reductive rationale for his criminality.
Focusing on Bulger from his mid-forties through his mid-sixties (minus aging makeup, however) helps Black Mass avoid the usual pitfalls associated with biopics, simple, simplistic psychological reasoning (e.g., trauma, neglect, poverty, etc.) Mark Mallouk’s and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay sidesteps the why and the how of Bulger’s sociopathic behavior, refusing to indulge in a retroactive, reductive rationale for his criminality. Cooper, Mallouk, and Butterworth don’t indulge in flashbacks or background-revealing dialogue. Whether Bulger was born a violent sociopath or became one through environmental factors doesn’t matter. Then again, Cooper is less interested in Bulger’s consolidation of power than how that consolidation happened through the overt acquiescence of the FBI.
Depp’s performance, both aided and, at times, hampered by makeup that hides his hairline under a partial bald cap and disturbingly blue contact lenses (unchanging pupils add to Whitey’s oddly hypnotic, vampiric demeanor), periodically serves as a reminder of the film Black Mass could have been if Cooper and his screenwriters had found something more meaningful to say about gangsters or the gangster life. Even the parallel focus on Connelly’s descent from well-meaning, ambitious FBI agent with questionable ethics runs aground on overly familiar territory. His divided loyalties (the FBI, the ethnic tribalism Whitey embodies and represents) and apparent lack of self-awareness suggest a tragic, maybe even a doomed, figure, but Cooper fails to invest Connelly with enough depth or nuance for his seemingly inevitable fall to have anything except minimal or transitory resonance.
Connelly fares better, much better actually, than any of the female characters in Black Mass. The women in Black Mass are either mothers, girlfriends, or prostitutes. They’re defined by their proximity and relationships to Whitey. Once they serve their narrative functions, they tend to disappear into the margins of the film. If Black Mass was any indication, Bulger led a mostly celibate life after ending a long-term relationship with Lindsey Cyr. Cooper’s Bulger has little interest, if any, in the company of women except for purely functional reasons and almost always off-screen. Cooper, however, isn’t necessarily questioning Bulger’s sexuality per se, but only that Whitey’s interests lie in primarily in money, power, and the exercise thereof with impunity (i.e., freedom from federal or state prosecution).
Black Mass is a random collection of gangster clichés and tropes, and offers little besides Johnny Depp’s performance as the sociopathic James “Whitey” Bulger.