Black Mass, 2015.
Directed by Scott Cooper.
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard and Dakota Johnson.
The true story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, the notorious gangster who used his status as a FBI informant under John Connolly to take over South Boston.
In Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, there is no protagonist. The film’s rather populated by bad guys, with the good either on the fringes or at the end of the gunsights of one of Boston’s most notorious historical criminal factions: James ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. This cabal of murderers and racketeers ruled Boston for years, thanks to a shady deal Bulger cut with the FBI in the 70s and which he used as a licence to treat his home town like his own lawless kingdom.
The figure who would traditionally confront such a criminal in this sort of film happens to be on the take just like everybody else: John Connolly, the FBI agent that knew Whitey since a child. He’s played by Joel Edgerton, following up his terrific turn in The Gift earlier this year with another human sort of villain (though one that’s much less sympathetic). For Connolly there’s a personal reason for his siding with Whitey – we hear that as a boy Connolly was protected from bullies by Bulger, and a pitiful, posturing Edgerton hints that Connolly’s in this bargain partly because he sees a chance to finally endear himself to the kid he always looked up to.
Johnny Depp’s Whitey Bulger, a blatant psychopath throttling a young woman to death in the afternoon and telling jokes at a family barbecue by evening, is Black Mass’ boogeyman ‘hero’. As Whitey, Depp looks chilling, like a silent movie-era Dracula that’s also shockingly close physically to the real Bulger circa the film’s ’75-’85 primary setting. Black Mass admirably never glamorises Whitey Bulger, or anybody else – this is a film that leaves its audience to navigate alone the murky waters of Boston crime in search of the light. Even Goodfellas had the relatively conflicted and relatable Henry Hill at its centre; Black Mass is instead full of despicable men deceiving themselves in order to live with their horrendous deeds.
Every character in Black Mass is continuously bending the rules of various codes to make them feel a little easier about how low they find themselves sinking. For Whitey and his gang, talking to the feds is not ‘ratting’, but making an “alliance” that’s good for business. For Connolly and his FBI partner John Morris (David Harbour), it’s telling themselves that lining their own pockets with mob hush money is just part of wiping Boston clean of the Mafia, whom the Winter Hill Gang decimate using federal intel.
Black Mass is a big movie, but it was originally bigger. Trimmed down by a third, from three hours to two, Cooper leaves Black Mass with a panoply of characters, not all of which are story-wise totally relevant, and a shedload of actors great and good, not all of whom have the time to make a decent impact. Dakota Johnson for one is crucial in the first 45 minutes of the film as the mother to Bulger’s doted-upon son, before the character disappears altogether without word, discarded. Benedict Cumberbatch fares little better. It’s indeed fascinating that the criminal Whitey Bulger’s brother Billy was a squeaky clean Massachusetts state senator, but in this film the fact is barely explored, with Cumberbatch sidelined in not much more than a cameo.
Black Mass’ cast is luxurious, but too many are wasted. Peter Sarsgaard gets a big introduction before he swiftly exits the film 20 minutes later, Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott play government agents present only to articulate the FBI’s mistrust of Connolly’s operation, and the perennially under-used Juno Temple gets no more than a single scene. (The film’s lack of regard for its female characters on the whole is slightly troubling – Sienna Miller, as Whitey’s girlfriend, was cut entirely in post.) With its staggered storytelling and underdeveloped side-plots, Black Mass feels like a movie waiting for a director’s cut.
Those who are actually integral to the core story are fully utilised at least. Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons and W Earl Brown make for an indelibly ugly trio as Bulger’s top enforcers, while Edgerton and David Harbour excel as ordinary men snared into a deal with the devil only to later choke on their hubris. Johnny Depp will obviously be the main draw for most, and happily he delivers his best performance in years. Though sticking in his comfort zone of heavy makeup and wiggery, Depp creates his first real character in some time, in a convincing portrayal of smiling evil. The nicotine-fried cackle alone is deeply unsettling.
Black Mass is perhaps just a tad too fixated on Whitey Bulger, keeping those closest to him – particularly his mother and brother – always at the periphery. Still, at least Cooper has the smarts to realise Depp is his film’s greatest asset and keep the rejuvenated actor front and centre. A better actors’ director than most, Cooper otherwise lacks a firm grasp on the medium. His last film, Out of the Furnace, was just as well-acted yet stodgy and choppily-paced. Black Mass is Cooper’s best movie so far, but his ability to draw topline acting talent and use it to power his movies remains more impressive than his ability to tell a truly compelling story of his own.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.