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.
The story of James “Whitey” Bulger is a sordid and sad one. Known as one of the most ruthless gangsters in American history, his reputation and his crimes landed him at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list until he was supplanted by no less than Osama bin Laden following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Though an official biopic was not made until now, with Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Bulger was the basis for Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
The main draw for this film is to finally see Johnny Depp act again.
The story covered in Black Mass is that of the real rise to power Bulger (played by Johnny Depp) experienced in the early 1970s and ranges through the mid-1990s when Bulger went on the run after his citywide empire started to crumble. Bulger was a small-time hood that ran some rackets in Southie Boston, had done a stint in Alcatraz, came back to Southie and gained control of the Winter Hill gang, still doing small-time stuff. Then John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an old childhood friend, comes back to town as an FBI agent tasked with bringing down the mafia in Boston. Connolly makes a deal with Bulger that if Bulger will give information to him and the FBI concerning the mafia running out of north Boston, Bulger will have a free and protected hand to do whatever he wants in Southie. Bulger agrees to a ‘partnership’ but not ratting, because years of mob and crime films have taught us that ratting is the worst thing someone in organized crime can do.
As Bulger gets bigger, Connolly obfuscates and covers for him more and more until he’s just as much a part of the empire as anyone else is. Eventually a new prosecutor (played by Corey Stoll) comes in and seriously questions why Bulger hasn’t been brought down yet, stating that he’s barely produced any actionable intel. Connolly keeps covering until he can’t anymore and Bulger goes on the run, where he would stay for sixteen years before finally being arrested in 2011.
Black Mass isn’t going to be known for much more than Depp’s performance, and that’s okay.
The main draw for this film is to finally see Johnny Depp act again. It’s been at least eleven years, since 2004’s Finding Neverland, that he’s played someone that wasn’t over-the-top goofy, and it’s really quite refreshing even if he is playing a psychopathic murderer. He delivers a measured and nuanced performance that really gives the audience a sense of how terrifying it would be to be around Bulger. He’s bolstered by a good supporting cast, especially Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Bulger’s brother Billy (the Senate President for the Massachusetts State Senate). It was odd listening to the exceedingly British Cumberbatch speaking with a Boston accent, but throughout the course of the film, you get used to it, if not entirely comfortable with it.
This is director Scott Cooper’s third film and his first that he didn’t write himself. His tone for the film is like an odd marriage of the slow, measured pace of Francis Ford Coppola and the Godfather films and the gritty street crime of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Goodfellas and The Departed. Cooper certainly isn’t as operatic as Coppola nor as fast-paced as Scorsese, so the mixture of the two is interesting. It serves to make the film incredibly absorbing, yet uneven. Add to that the shrouded, dark work from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and you get something that is going for dark and mysterious in a very obvious way.
The script, by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, is also uneven. It seems to spend more time with Connolly and the FBI than it does with Bulger and the Winter Hill gang and feels the need to tell an awful lot of what’s going on instead of showing it. Edgerton’s character is compelling, but he shouldn’t be a primary focus, which is what he becomes. The time we do spend with Bulger, we never get a sense of who he is outside of his being a murderous psychopath save for one personal tragedy that happens early in the film. He’s closed off, possibly to remain mysterious but really it is a detriment to the film. We see these horrible things happening and are told of far worse things but never get inside the character to see what is really motivating him. We get a lot of plot points about who was killed and why, but we never really know what it is that drives Bulger to go after more power when he seemed to be okay with running Southie for so long. Mallouk and Butterworth seem to want to make this like an old ’30s gangster picture where the gangster just wants more for the sake of wanting more and the lengths he’ll go to for more. They seem so concerned about keeping the facts straight and making sure the names of the victims are known (not a dishonorable goal, to be sure) that they neglect developing their main character. Depp plays it like master, but I just wish there was more to him. Connolly changes dramatically as the film goes along, and Bulger does to a degree as well, but Connolly’s alterations are developed and shown, while Bulger’s just seem to happen because that’s what the testimony said happened. If their goal was to paint the definitive portrait of James “Whitey” Bulger, they missed their mark. If their goal was to write a good, absorbing crime drama then they hit their target but missed the bullseye.
Black Mass isn’t going to be known for much more than Depp’s performance, and that’s okay. His performance is worth more than the price of admission and you still get a fascinating and engaging film about a man who built a horrible legacy and managed to evade U.S. law enforcement for 16 years (though that part is only mentioned at the end of the film) despite the fact that the director didn’t particularly have much of a style and the writers couldn’t figure out which side to tell the story from. Black Mass is built upon magnetic performances anchored by Depp rediscovering his true talent and us remembering what it was about him that drew us to him in the first place all those years ago.
Absorbing and with a fantastic performance from Johnny Depp, Black Mass is an uneven but entertaining crime drama.