Scott Cooper and Johnny Depp’s examination of Boston crime kingpin/FBI informant James “Whitey” Bulger is intriguing in subject matter and entertaining enough in execution, but by no means a classic.
The problem with Black Mass, is that you see most of it coming. That’s not to say what you see coming doesn’t prove to be intriguing, shocking, or darkly amusing – there is indeed plenty of entertainment value on the surface of Scott Cooper’s tale of South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, his long time association with the FBI and the subsequent, brutal expansion of his criminal empire – but the lack of validation for our intrigue, the lack of real depth, if you will, holds it firmly in the solid-bordering-on-forgettable category. I wouldn’t say this is bad filmmaking however, far from it in fact. Classic, flawless gangster flicks can almost be counted using all of one’s digits, and making such a film is no easy feat. Cooper’s picture, while unlikely to blow you away, is a decent enough night at the movies for several reasons.
First up, the man himself. Seeing Johnny Depp in the trailer playing what looked to be the role we’ve been crying out to see for many a year – probably since his turn as Dillinger in Michael Mann’s 2009 Public Enemies – was a godsend. He delivers too, oozing cold, black hearted, unstable hatred throughout, intercut with a guilt-inducing, perfectly timed sense of humour that, like all the best monsters of this world, convinces you to lower your guard for just a moment in his presence, despite the fact that not only does “Whitey” Bulger really exist, but he also happened to murder a lot of people. Such a performance is unsettling – it’s good cinema. The rest of the cast combine to produce an overall fine distraction also, with plenty of playing up to the seemingly well researched traits of their real life counterparts. A particular standout is Rory Cochrane as Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, Bulger’s right-hand man and co-FBI informant, demonstrating a tired quality that, again, somehow creates a feeling bordering on empathy for a man that seemed to resent the life he had chosen, or was at least challenged morally, regardless of real life right and wrong, but carried out the ‘wrong’ in cold blood all the same.
Certain aspects of Cooper’s direction also deserve praise, especially the technical. The framing is gorgeous throughout, with the camera first being set inventively and effectively, before straining to get the most out of each character’s emotional state. At Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s (of Silver Linings Playbook fame) behest, it succeeds. Understandably, such craft is overly prevalent and overall most effective when Depp is in front of the camera; his never fully relaxed demeanour and frighteningly determined expression playing to the reel perfectly. Hand in hand with Depp is the success of such a shooting style when it comes to moments of raw tension and eventual execution (in every sense of the word) of basic human drama, whether it be a close up conveying subtle but clear disbelief and mistrust behind a character’s eyes, or an unforgiving, unrelenting expiration of human life on the streets of South Boston. The fucked up violence feels real, no question.
So what’s holding Black Mass back? Well, any meaningful character development for one. The cast is great on paper, and they entertain, but for the most part their characters are one-dimensional and their actions come across more as the work of the ole’ shoehorn rather than being genuinely organic. Bendict Cumberbatch for example is all but irrelevant casting. Billy Bulger’s character isn’t written all that well, his interactions don’t do enough to match his status as a high profile political figure (sure they shove in a speech here and a march there, but nothing of consequence), and his impact is uneventful, if not meaningless. The fact that Cumberbatch is playing him therefore makes no difference other than the fact that the audience think subconsciously, “ah, it’s Benedict, I should be impressed”, which of course does kind of happen as the majority of us tend to get caught up in the moment, but it only serves to keep things moving at a decent pace rather than actually elevating in any significant way either the film or our train of thought.
This goes for the majority of the characters and cast. As mentioned above, they’re certainly not boring, but there’s not much going on under the surface. Take Joel Edgerton as enthusiastic FBI agent turned criminal conspirator/idiot John Connelly. While amusing and a good fit for the picture, he comes across as a complete chancer, almost a clown at times, with little to support his character save for a sharp suit and a shit ton of sarcasm. This guy kept a scam of this magnitude going for twenty or so years? It’s a role and performance almost devoid of reality, denting the film’s attempts at true grit elsewhere. Depp as Bulger and Cochrane as Flemmi are the exception to an extent, but even their characters soon become a case of same old. It pretty much boils down to what you see is what you get, nothing more and nothing less.
This leads conveniently to the film’s primary problem; that it never kicks itself up enough to engage the audience to levels of genuine curiosity or surprise regarding the outcome of any one character. Once the tone is set and the nature of Bulger and his associates is revealed, nothing much changes. There’s murders, but you see them coming. They’re beyond grim at times, but by the end you’re all but desensitised to it. That sounds horrendously depressing, but when every action and character involved is identical near the end of the film to what they were fifteen to twenty years earlier, right down to suits, hair etc., your brain takes notice and it impacts your giving a shit. Even a moment that likely would have passed over this tension filter with flying colours during the latter stages, namely the Goodfellas-esque “steak secret” dinner conversation, is ruined for many due to it being included beat for beat during the debut trailer. It is a bloody brilliant trailer, but the trailer isn’t what’s important, and ultimately the scene fell flat when it didn’t need too for those who had seen it. The tremendously terrifying sequence that follows, as Bulger pops upstairs for a word with Connelly’s wife, is a rare example of literal outright gripping audience anxiety, because there isn’t a blatant wink and nod at the fact that a murder’s about to occur.
So, would I recommend Black Mass? Overall, yes. It may not have the soul searching depth and quality of what most would label a classic gangster flick, but considering Cooper only shot his first film six years ago, it’s hardly a bad effort and he definitely deserves credit for some of the impressive technical direction on display. Having yet to view any of his previous works I’ll be doing just that in the coming weeks, and keeping an eye on his future output for sure. The tale of “Whitey” Bulger itself is also worth witnessing, if only to discover and encourage further research of the downright dark history surrounding him and those he knew. Ultimately however, it wouldn’t be a crime to miss this particular version. If you do venture to the theatre then don’t expect a masterpiece, and don’t expect too much to be conveyed other than the well-paced chug of key timeline points within the story itself, dressed up in sunken eyes, drenched in intervals of blood and spun with a few blacker than black, albeit wickedly witty one liners.