by Matt Levine
The line between law and larceny has always been fuzzy in America, but that doesn’t mean we need another rote crime saga about how cops and criminals are flipsides of the same corrupt coin. This is a lesson Scott Cooper could have learned before making Black Mass, a blunt and tacky gangster film that offers absolutely nothing new in the way of thematic insight or visceral excitement. As the credits and promotional materials proudly state, the movie is “based on a true story”: that of James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious South Boston kingpin who partnered with the FBI to take down the Italian mafia, only to exploit those connections to expand his crime empire throughout the city. Despite its real-world origins, though, Black Mass can only come off as forced and generic, developing a bloodsoaked storyline familiar to anyone who’s seen Goodfellas or American Gangster (or Prince of the City or The Godfather or Serpico or pretty much any crime picture you can think of).
Director: Scott Cooper
Producers: Scott Cooper, John Lesher, Patrick McCormick, Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson
Writers: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth, Dick Lehr (book), Gerard O'Neill (book)
Cinematographer: Masanobu Takayanagi
Editor: David Rosenbloom
Music: Tom Holkenborg
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp
Premiere: September 4, 2015 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 18, 2015
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Black Mass begins with the pressing of a tape recorder, structuring the film as the official testimony of one of the stoolies in Bulger’s crime family. This is one of those cases where telling a linear story would have enhanced the narrative, allowing us to follow these vicious characters from their pressure-cooker beginnings to the depths of their villainy, but since most “serious” crime movies pretend to be original by shuffling their chronology, Black Mass simply follows the template laid down by better movies before it. The testimony we hear is uttered by a pudgy henchman named Kevin Weeks (Friday Night Lights' Jesse Plemons), who relates his beginnings as a member of Bulger’s clan: he makes a name for himself by beating the shit out of one of Bulger’s cousins, who in turn pummels Kevin into a pulp. In the very next scene, Kevin earns Bulger’s trust by bludgeoning some guy’s face and leaving the body in an abandoned lot. This is how Black Mass primarily tries to distinguish itself—it assumes somber, unrelenting violence equates to hard-edged honesty (in reality, though, it makes the movie no better than the bloodthirsty man-children it purports to condemn).
Who is Whitey Bulger? We first meet him in his early forties after a long stretch in Leavenworth and Alcatraz. He’s a brutal but small-time hood, his nefarious reach extending no further than the mostly Irish, lower-class confines of South Boston. Aside from this, we know nothing about the character—what was his childhood like? Why did he aspire to this criminal life? Is there any depth or complexity to his violence? When and how did he begin this unseemly path? It’s a sign of Black Mass’ disinterest in its characters that it never attempts to answer these questions. True, a full biography beginning with Bulger’s youth might have seemed overly simplistic—as though charting his complete life might have “explained” his reprehensibility—but as it is, Black Mass displays zero interest in developing flesh-and-blood people, preferring to prop up cardboard caricatures instead.
Although much of the blame lies in Cooper’s flat direction and a muddled screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (based on a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill), Johnny Depp does nothing to complicate our perception of the central character. Outfitted with distracting prosthetics—a bald cap covered with stringy hair, icy-blue contact lenses, yellowed teeth—and rasping a monotonous Baaa-ston accent, he approaches Whitey Bulger the same way the filmmakers do: as an outsized villain whose evil is simply inherent, whose vile ambitions need no explanation. Although there are scenes of Bulger coddling his son (and telling him the secret to success is being able to hide your misdeeds), these simply feel like condescending attempts to wring sympathy from the audience; there's no sincerity in these interactions at all. Depp’s performance has been lauded as a return to form after a string of critical and commercial flops, but it is in fact a bland and dishonest effort from the actor; with his bold costuming and emphatic accent, Depp approaches Whitey Bulger the same way he would Captain Jack Sparrow—he just looks infinitely creepier and his dialogue contains many more variations on the word "fuck."
The plot of Black Mass doesn’t really kick in until we meet FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an up-and-comer in the bureau’s Boston office. A good old boy from South Boston who was protected in school by the bullying Bulger (again, this means nothing to the audience because we don’t observe, and therefore can’t interpret, this backstory), Connolly proposes a plan whereby Bulger will leak information regarding the Italian mafia in exchange for protection from Connolly’s office. Why would Connolly so eagerly betray his role as a peacekeeper and aid a man he knows is a ruthless criminal? Is it simply loyalty to a fellow Irish Bostonian? A sincere belief that Bulger and his men are rugged heroes while the FBI is a tribe of corrupt politicians? Simply an attempt to gain fame and notoriety? Once again the movie provides nothing to deepen our understanding, though at least Edgerton offers a complex performance that inspires reflection (Edgerton is by far the most successful performer in the cast). A defter use of flashbacks or even more precise dialogue might have paid respect to the intricacies of this story, but Black Mass condescendingly assumes the audience is so bulldozed by the somber violence that we won’t care about theme or character.
The supporting cast is an impressive crew, but aside from Edgerton not a single character resembles someone who lived and breathed in reality. As Bulger’s slimy senator brother Billy, Benedict Cumberbatch lends some prestige cred (and a half-successful Boston accent) and nothing else; about fifty other actors with perfect hair and an oily grin could have played the role. Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Gray) receives the most thankless role as Whitey’s wife; we don’t meet her until after their son is born, so we have no idea why she is attracted to him or how they met or what she does aside from cook meals and set tables. Kevin Bacon and Corey Stoll are hard-ass federal agents with no depth, though at least they seem to have fun with their badgering personas. The always-reliable Peter Sarsgaard plays a strung-out small-time crook; at least half of his screen time is spent shooting other people or getting shot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that wastes such an impressive cast on characters that are never intended to be more than disposable placeholders.
In all fairness, the movie evokes a palpable sense of time and place; each paisley necktie and massive automobile puts us sometime between the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook) achieves some lovely nighttime scenes and unique compositions (long shots that emphasize the flat architecture of government buildings, for example), though his work is done no favors by David Rosenbloom’s slapdash editing. Even if Black Mass is occasionally visually appealing, though, its level of artistry never rises above proficiency. What does it matter if you know how to light and shoot a scene if nothing happening within the frame garners much interest?
The ultimate question Black Mass leaves in its wake has nothing to do with the intersection of corruption and justice in American society (a theme that would be especially potent nowadays) or what kind of external conditions could make someone a heartless monster. We’re left wondering, instead, why this movie was made in the first place—what the director, Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) and his cast and crew thought they could bring to an inherently interesting story. The luxurious home that Connolly’s corruption earns and the gangster mottos that Bulger spouts are never reflected upon, except to deliver the trite message that crime pays until it doesn’t. This surface engagement with complex material might be forgivable if the movie was entertaining or visceral enough to provide temporary thrills, but it simply isn’t; its repetitive violence and funereal tone become more mind-numbing than affecting (“black mass” seems an unintentionally apt descriptor for the movie as a whole). This is what makes Black Mass so deserving of our scorn: unlike bad movies which might still be entertaining, the Furious 7’s or the Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s of the world, Black Mass has the nerve to pretend it’s serious and significant when it’s just recycling self-conscious gangster clichés. One of the greatest crimes we see in Black Mass involves filmmakers who assume audiences crave violence so much they won't recognize a fatuous movie when they see one.