People have hyped up Black Mass, director Scott Cooper’s true-life film adaptation of infamous Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger’s rise and fall as the big return of “serious actor Johnny Depp,” rather than the “ridiculous hat Johnny Depp” that’s been running rampant on movie screens for a decade plus now.
Which would be a lovely thing, because these last few years and their The Lone Rangers and Alice in Wonderlands and Dark Shadows-es make it easy to forget that Depp is responsible for some of the best performances in film history. Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, and even the first Pirates of the Caribbean contain some of the greatest disappearing acts ever – with Depp buried so far into the character that what gets expressed is something as pure as cinema itself.
Having seen his latest film venture though, I cannot shake the feeling that Depp has forgotten how to do that. That his Whitey Bulger is another chapter in the “ridiculous hat Johnny Depp” pantheon. There is no way to look at Depp in Black Mass and not see just Johnny Depp in some serious makeup, wigs, and silver eyes that feel like they have computer enhanced for extra shine, and Depp simply cannot muster the ability to disappear into the role, his voice and exaggerated facial expressions betraying him at every turn – his Bulger feels like a Halloween costume rather than Bulger himself.
But this time, for once, that works – this is one frightening Halloween costume. Rather than disappear, Depp turns this funny hat role into a crazed twitchy psychopath, devouring the walls and chairs, enemy mobsters, and FBI agents surrounding him with a smile. In Black Mass, Bulger is not a man – Depp plays him like Lucifer wearing an ill-fitting suit of human skin, black leather, and sunglasses. A Lucifer that looks in the mirror and still sees himself as Robin Hood.
[section label=”The Story” anchor=”Surprisingly”]
Surprisingly, this depiction of Whitey Bulger isn’t too far from how some actually describe him. Bulger ruled the mythology of South Boston from the 1970’s all the way to his recent capture in 2011, after 30 years on the run – to some an angel, to most a devil, and everyone knew his name.
One of those people Bulger was some form of an angel to was John Connolly, an FBI agent played by Joel Edgerton. Connolly is one of those who maintains some kind of admiration for Bulger, as he grew up in South Boston, and comes up with a deal: Connolly will protect Bulger from FBI investigation in exchange for Bulger providing the FBI with information on his rivals, the Italian American Patriarca crime family.
If this sounds familiar, it should. The story of Whitey Bulger was part of the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s electric, stylish, and spanning Boston crime drama The Departed. Which is part of the problem for Black Mass – The Departed was a story that took two-and-a-half hours to examine a few months in detail (with a prologue that covers decades of backstory in minutes) and got at the heart of the Bulger myth and the evils of corruption in higher power. Black Mass takes two hours to cover decades of time, and can’t afford proper detail to any of the incredible events that occurred over Bulger’s reign, instead favoring to recreate all the parts you’ve seen in a thousand other gangster life stories.
[section label=”The Script” anchor=”The main contributor”]
The main contributor to this problem is the script, by writers Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, which sells short almost every interesting detail of the Bulger story it can find. For example, Whitey Bulger, infamous Boston gangster and mass murderer, had a brother in the Massachusetts State Senate, Billy Bulger. That should make for a fascinating three-spoke story, right? Despite casting a great Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger, Black Mass gives him almost nothing to do except be exasperated, and his role in the greater story is almost marginal, squandering an otherwise great performance.
[section label=”The Cast” anchor=”roles of the wives”]
Or take the roles of the wives. In the best of gangster cinema that follows masculine straight men, the wife is the perspective of the filmmaker and the audience, the entryway to the glamour and the consciousness of the film as the glamour inevitably evaporates, and is afforded the necessary characterization. Black Mass does not do that. Despite a huge effort from Johnson to give Bulger’s wife-by-common-law Lindsay Cyr depth, the movie does nothing with her, remaining coldly and clinically attached to Bulger. Juliette Nicholson fares much better with Connolly’s wife, Marianne. She has one standout scene with Depp that might be strong enough to land her a Supporting Actress nod come Oscar season this fall, but she does this entirely of her own power, sold with her face and silence – no thanks to the script that otherwise nearly ignores her.
The script also fails in one other critical aspect: the tale of Bulger himself. Divided into three sections, from Boston to Florida and back to Boston for his downfall, the film outright refuses to further expand on Bulger beyond “devil who thinks he’s an angel.” Oddly enough, it is Connolly who gets the meat of the film’s real drama, pairing off against a staple of other actors including Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, and Adam Scott of Parks and Recreation fame. Edgerton plays Connolly with a sense of real confliction and a healthy dose of comedy as he finds himself dragged closer to his childhood idol/embodiment of Satan over time. Nothing in Edgerton feels forced, unlike Depp’s Bulger who remains a one note tune of punishing violence Black Mass is intent on playing until the end of the song.
That one note means Bulger never evolves past an (incredibly compelling) demon. Nearly no information is given as to what really made him this way, and the film almost entirely skips over the most interesting part of the story: the 11 years Whitey Bulger spent on the run as the FBI’s second most wanted man behind Osama Bin Laden. His dramatic arrest is a brief epilogue that feels like it was tacked on with those off-brand tacks that don’t stick into walls very well. This film is only concerned with going through a greatest hits list of Bulger’s glory days of crime, a list that unfortunately has been seen many, many times before.
[section label=”The Direction” anchor=”second deadly sin”]
Which is perhaps the second deadly sin of Black Mass: it can’t raise the events of the film up to Depp’s lunatic-gear speed or even to the rest of the cast’s solid performances. Director Scott Cooper’s previous films, the really good country music drama Crazy Heart and the mild revenge drama Out of the Furnace, established him as a very solid director who does nothing flashy. Which is exactly what the boilerplate story Cooper is choosing to tell needs. It needs some of Scorsese’s panache that he brought to The Departed and Goodfellas (another film clearly channeled here), or the kinetic energy of the 70’s films he and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi want Black Mass to look like, or the iconic score of the soaring 70’s orchestras that composer Junkie XL (yes, the guy who did Mad Max: Fury Road) is attempting to match
This isn’t to say that Cooper makes any bad decisions. His set pieces of violence and dark comedy (like the dinner table scene made famous in the trailer) are finely directed and quickly paced. He hits the comedic beats that Edgerton is throwing down. He properly compliments Depp’s eccentricities and sudden bursts of violence. He is unafraid to let a scene sit, and let Whitey Bulger work his way under your skin and into your soul. But Cooper simple doesn’t make enough *great* decisions. He doesn’t elevate the script and story that is dedicated to hitting every gangster story trope in the book.
[section label=”Overview” anchor=”such is the story”]
Such is the story of Black Mass. It isn’t bad, but there is an absence of real good with the exception of the lead performances. As a coming out party for Joel Edgerton in mainstream drama and a blistering comeback for Johnny Depp, this goes recommended. Just know that you’ve seen this before: a one note gangster song played very, very loud.