Black Mass is an old school crime drama about legendary Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger. The media narrative surrounding this film is all about Johnny Depp’s return to greatness. I can sorta confirm this. Depp is chilling, enigmatic, but… there’s little variation beyond that. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) enters the gangster genre aiming to create something restrained and subtle with a focus on character. The screenplay sometimes utilizes a flashback structure with FBI interrogations of Bulger’s biggest cronies. This is used to merely cover ground quickly rather than show us the events.
We first meet Bulger covered in shadow at a bar. He looks like he’s just walked out of a coffin. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an old childhood friend and FBI agent, convinces Whitey to become an FBI informant. Connolly pitches him a plan. Whitey will give the FBI info on the Italian mafia while Connolly covers for him as he gains more power and territory.
Depp’s Bulger is a frankensteinish appropriated myth. For a film aiming to be so understated and quiet, Bulger stands out like a sore thumb and this is precisely the point. His skin looks dead. His eyes are piercing and unreal. His mannerisms and walk recall Lon Chaney’s monster work. Frankenstein and Nosferatu come to mind. Pieces of Bulger’s legend and stories about him are what we’re seeing on screen as an entity. This then becomes a film not about the man Whitey Bulger, but rather the myth of the man, and it’s the films sole strength though never fully flexed. There are points where Bulger sticks out so much from the scenery that it feels like Depp is doing an impersonation, but the larger thematic point is still intact.
Cooper sometimes shows Bulger’s shadow or silhouettes him to make him seem like a creature (I wish this had been pushed even further). For the first 20 minutes you might be conned into thinking you’re going to see something remarkable, but it’s minimal progression makes it a mediocre and unremarkable entry in the genre.
We’re shown a modern Dracula, but aren’t allowed inside his head for more than a few minutes. Giant events happen to him involving his closest family and in the moment they appear to show us a different side of Bulger, but 10 minutes later it’s like they didn’t even happen. A huge oversight when you consider that nearly the entire film is ABOUT him. After 2 hours we’ve seen something occasionally chilling on the surface but it hasn’t crawled underneath.
The script ultimately keeps Depp’s Bulger from becoming a classic film character. I like to imagine this film with 1980’s Brian De Palma at the helm because the violence would’ve popped and the energy would’ve been palpable. Despite it’s staleness, Cooper at the very least cooks up a monster that will likely be remembered come years end, but his film in total is merely a thesis. A husk of a scarecrow. The script and Bulger’s interactions can be chilling but rarely dig below the surface to see where this man came from and how his myth was birthed. Dialogue touches on it and moments show Bulger’s tenderness when he’s with his son and wife, but they’re only done early on to get us involved with him before he gains more power. Their early exit robs the film of an emotional center and makes it the weakest entry in Cooper’s filmography by a good margin.
Paralleling Bulger’s rise is John Connolly’s fall from innocence. You get the sense that since he grew up with Whitey he’s always idolized him. Connolly’s plan grows into sheltering Whitey from prosecution at all costs. It’s a fascinating relationship at points, but by the third act the storyline stalls out along with the rest of the film. He rationalizes his criminal acts with loyalty, a theme slightly underdeveloped. One might expect their rise together to be like Henry Hill’s but Cooper’s understated direction intentionally never tries, which keeps the film from being a worthy entry into the genre. It teeters between tense and stale until finally landing on the latter.
It’s a nice idea to keep the film understated, but the script’s not focused and interesting enough for a character study and Cooper’s direction isn’t able to make the film rise above it’s shackles. He loads his gun but never pulls the trigger. Bulger doesn’t change over the course of the film, he just grows in myth and gains territory. We’re left with a film that has nothing to say. Connolly is the most rounded and interesting character because he deludes himself with the myth of Bulger, but in this story he’s stuck as second in command. This is the biggest missed opportunity of the film. For what this film is about, Connolly would’ve been better suited to be the main character with Bulger’s myth destroying him. It would’ve become a truly interesting film about the perils of idolization and myth in a dark underwood. It’s frustrating that they missed this opportunity because it fits so well with Cooper’s frankensteinish construction of Bulger and Connolly’s infatuation with him.
The film slowly drives along at the same speed, limiting itself and content with the idea that what it’s doing is enough. Unnerving dialogue scenes keep it afloat along with Depp’s performance, which keeps your eyes glued to his every move. It’s a fine performance that isn’t given enough help to create a worthwhile film. The end product is merely a decent thesis. Most fans of the gangster genre will no doubt have a decent time and I’m sure it’d be a good saturday night watch at home. In terms of recent gangster films, it’s light years from the other Boston gangster flick, The Departed, and closer to the level of last years The Drop, but even that it is a more satisfying and emotionally resonant film. Cooper’s central idea is a good one, but the execution is flawed and the film becomes a mediocre but sometimes entertaining thesis statement about myth.