You know how sometimes you watch a movie and you’re happy because you know it’s a good movie but, at the same time, you end up feeling slightly disappointed because, as good as it may be, it never quite becomes the great movie that you were hoping for?
That was kind of my reaction to Black Mass.
Black Mass tells the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the gangster who controlled the Boston underworld from the late 70s to the mid-90s. Bulger was both famous and feared for his ruthless brutality and his willingness to murder just about anyone. Bulger was also famous for being the brother of Billy Bulger, a powerful Democratic politician. When it appeared that Whitey was finally on the verge of being indicted, he vanished into thin air and, for 2 decades, remained missing until he was finally captured in Florida. Whitey Bulger is now serving two life sentences.
Black Mass is a solid gangster film. We watch as Whitey (Johnny Depp) takes over Boston and essentially murders anyone who gets on his nerves. Helping Whitey out is a local FBI Agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up in South Boston with the Bulger brothers. While Connolly originally only appears to be using Whitey as an informant to help take down the Italian mob, it quickly becomes obvious that Connolly envies the power and influence of both Whitey and Billy (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). Soon, Connolly has become something of a Bulger groupie and is protecting Whitey from prosecution and even leaking him the names of anyone who attempts to inform on Bulger’s crime.
Indeed, the film’s best scenes are the ones in which it is shown how the FBI’s determination to take down the Mafia allowed the far more violent Bulger to move into their place. Bulger was a criminal who worked for and was protected by the U.S. government and, as such, his story serves as a metaphor for a lot of what is currently messed up about America. While I appreciated the time that Black Mass devoted to exploring Whitey’s relationship with the FBI, I do wish it had spent more time exploring his relationship with his brother, Billy. The film places most of the blame for Whitey’s reign of terror on the FBI but it defies common sense not to assume that Whitey was also protected by his well-connected, politically powerful brother.
Black Mass contains all of the usual gangster film tropes. There are sudden and violent executions. There are drug addicted criminals who turn out to be less than trustworthy. (Poor Peter Sarsgaard.) There’s the usual talk of honor and respect. Beefy men with pockmarked faces stand in the shadows and shout random insults at each other until someone finally snaps. And, of course, we get the countless scenes where Bulger’s demeanor goes from friendly to threatening and we’re left wondering if he’s going to smile or if he’s going to kill someone. It may all be a little bit familiar but director Scott Cooper handles it all well and keeps things watchable.
In this 122-minute film, there are exactly two scenes in which Whitey is in any way sympathetic. In one scene, he breaks down after the death of his son and, in the other, he deals with the death of his mother. These are the only two scenes in which Whitey shows any hint of humanity. Otherwise, Bulger is presented as being almost pure evil. He’s no Michael Corleone, trying to go straight and making excuses for the family business. Nor does he possess the enjoyable flamboyance of Scareface‘s Tony Montana or The Departed‘s Frank Costello. Instead, he’s a pure sociopath and the film’s most effective shots are the ones that focus on Whitey’s expressionless gaze. They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul and one only has to look into Bulger’s to see that they are windows without a view.
Johnny Depp deserves all the credit in the world for making Whitey into a compelling character. Wisely, Depp underplays Whitey’s most threatening scenes. He rarely raises his voice and the only time he loses control of his emotions is when he’s confronted with something — like the death of his son — that even he can’t change. Otherwise, Depp plays Whitey as always being in control. (It’s mentioned, at one point, that Whitey was the subject of 50 LSD experiments while serving time in prison and Depp plays Whitey as if he’s always staring at something that nobody else can see.) It’s his confidence that makes Whitey Bulger an interesting character. You may not like him but you can’t look away because you know that he’s literally capable of anything. Ever since the trailer for Black Mass was first released, Depp has been at the center of awards speculation. Having seen the film, I can say that the Oscar talk is more than deserved. He’s even better than people like me thought he would be.
Depp is so good that he overshadows the rest of the cast. There’s a lot of good actors in this film, including Kevin Bacon, James Russo, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Jesse Plemons, and Rory Cochrane. But few of them get as much of a chance to make an impression as Johnny Depp. Much as Whitey dominated Boston, Depp dominates this film. Joel Edgerton has several great moments as the not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is Connolly but even he is thoroughly overshadowed by Depp’s performance. (That said, I did appreciate the fact that Edgerton’s too-eager-to-please Connolly came across like he might be a cousin to The Gift‘s Gordo the Weirdo.)
As I said at the beginning of this review, Black Mass is good but it was never quite as great as I was hoping it would be. There’s a few too many scenes where you get the feeling that Scott Cooper woke up the day of shooting and said, “Let’s Scorsese the shit out of this scene.” As a result, Black Mass sometimes struggles to escape from the shadow cast by Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, American Gangster, and the countless other mob films that have been released over the past few decades. Black Mass is well-made and will forever be remembered for Johnny Depp’s amazing lead performance but it never quite reaches the status of a classic.
Finally, on a personal note, I did enjoy the fact that Black Mass dealt with the Irish mob. I’m a little bit torn in my loyalties because I’m Irish-Italian but, if I ever had to pick a mob to which to serve as a cheerleader, I would go Irish Mafia all the way!