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.
Black Mass is a very strange film. It’s a typical gangster film, right down the hard-boiled dialogue and era-specific music cues. But it’s one that comes dangerously close to hero-worship about one of the most psychopathic gangsters of all time.
Told in flashbacks, as various members of Whitey’s crew recall specific time periods while being interrogated by the FBI, it can be difficult to keep track of who’s telling what. But the film brings it all together in sometimes too straightforward narration that summarizes key scenes while they’re happening in front of us.
It’s not a huge slight to the audience – there is a lot to get through – and without some form of signpost, many would just give up. But you can go through the entire film without really knowing who anyone is except for Whitey Bulger, even if they’re in just as many scenes as him.
The film follows the ‘alliance’ between Whitey and FBI Agent John Connolly, a neighbourhood kid who lived just doors down from Whitey and his brother, Billy. With the promise of huge arrests and intel regarding the Italian Mafia, Connolly’s bosses take a chance on it. But, later on, it becomes clear that Connolly is simply clearing the way for Whitey to become the head of South Boston.
Performance wise, it’s really Joel Edgerton who makes any impression as John Connolly. At first, he’s presented with the opportunity of a lifetime, slowly realising that he’s simply working for Bulger just like any henchman he has on the street. He’s under Bulger’s thumb and there’s nothing he can do about it.
The scenes where he’s trying to convince his superiors to keep Whitey on are some of the best in the movie. Connolly eventually starts to believe his own lies to the extent that he’s willing to openly bribe his new boss, as soon as he’s moved into his office.
That said, everyone will be talking about Johnny Depp’s performance as Whitey Bulger. It’s a good one, don’t get me wrong, but his transformation, with a fake hairline drawn back a few more inches, rotting teeth and piercing blue eyes, goes so far beyond anyone else in the movie, it becomes distracting. He’s like Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, a monster that’s sometimes presented in shadows, especially in a closing scene that lays things on a bit too thick. But, remember that it’s told in flashback – this is the myth of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a brutal thug that extorted, murdered and terrorized South Boston. In Black Mass, he’s not really painted as a hero, but seen as he’s the focus of the movie, there are half baked scenes that try to elicit sympathy but then never run with it.
Take the scene where he argues with his girlfriend while their son is on life support in the hospital. We’re supposed to be on Whitey’s side, despite what we’ve seen him do. We’re meant to feel sorry for him that he’s about to lose his kid. But, we don’t – or rather, we don’t have time to, because immediately after that scene, the film skips ahead six years and he seems to be over it now.
But it’s a shame that no one else, apart from Depp and Edgerton really seem to put the effort in performance wise. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Whitey’s younger brother Billy, another character who wilfully ignores his brother’s antics with ‘Jimmy’s business is Jimmy’s business’.
But all he really does is put on a nice suit and talk with a terrible Boston accent – you can’t look past Benedict Cumberbatch and you especially can’t believe that he’s meant to be related to Johnny Depp. It would’ve worked better had they spliced in scenes of Jeremy Renner from American Hustle, because that’s the sort of character that Billy Bulger seemed to be.
Whitey’s crew are also pretty anonymous, despite them being our eyes and ears throughout the film as narrators. You’re likely to lose track between the characters of Steve Flemmi and John Martorano, because they look so similar at points and you’ll only really know Kevin Weeks by his wild, curly hair, if at all. Only Peter Saarsgard seems to make the most of his screen time as a paranoid junkie who Bulger takes an instant dislike to.
Scott Cooper has said in interviews about Black Mass that the film scared him. He couldn’t help but think of great crime and gangster movies while making it and that kept putting him off. And you can tell that it really got to him in the film’s direction. It’s nothing special, it’s straightforward. Yes, there are a few Martin Scorsese-ism’s throughout, such as the use of era-specific music and one scene in particular that brings to mind a similar one in The Departed, in which Jack Nicholson’s character was inspired by Whitey Bulger. But there’s playing it safe and then there’s Black Mass, where a little bit of flourish here and there could have spiced things up a bit.
Not to say it doesn’t look good, doing justice to the grey skies of Boston and whenever Depp and Edgerton are on-screen, either alone or together, it’s definitely worth watching. Frustratingly, though, Black Mass doesn’t seem to go far enough with anything. Whitey somehow isn’t cold enough at times, only three FBI agents seem to care about what’s going on at any single time, brand new characters introduced from nowhere, come and go without us knowing anything about them until it’s too late. Just little things that add up over time and pull you away from the pair of amazing performances at the centre of the film.
Constantly teetering on the edge of greatness, it’s an entertaining crime drama, telling an interesting story, if not in the way that would best serve it. Still, if nothing else, you’ll be reminded that when he wants to, Johnny Depp can act.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★