Movie Review: “Black Mass” (Scott Cooper, USA 2015)

In 2011, when James “Whitey” Bulger was arrested, tried, and sentenced, I was in law school. As a result, I didn’t pay very close attention to the story. I remember Tony Kornheiser talking about it a few times but mostly just saying, “Wow–this is incredible! And now he’s so old! He looks like me!” and the like. But all I remember is that he had been on the run for a long time after having been a mobster and government informant. It’s possible that I heard more, but I find it strange to believe that I forgot what a bizarre story his was. He spent two decades growing his criminal empire in Boston while the FBI blocked all investigation of his activities because he was supposedly an informant of theirs, even though he apparently was essentially providing no information. His handler was falsifying information to make Bulger appear more important than he was in order to advance his own career while allowing Bulger to take over the city.

According to the film, the handler, John Connolly, doesn’t appear to have been on Bulger’s payroll or to have been placed in the FBI in order to execute this plan. So, the fundamental question that occurs to me is, “Why the hell did he protect Bulger like this?” This film, while it is supposedly about Bulger’s career, essentially attempts to answer that question. The answer that it gives is that Connolly, Bulger, and all of the other main players in this enterprise were children playing at a game of advancement and “success.” They never grew into men, remaining at heart kids on a playground even as they beat and murdered rivals and broke every law on the books.

Repeatedly, Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, have our characters returning to the refrain that they are “Southie boys” and discussing the events of their childhood. Connolly gives his wife a speech about the importance of “loyalty” to a “street kid” like himself when he’s just returned from a booze- and club-filled trip that has to bring his marital loyalty into question. He and Bulger toast “success,” not health and future returns or anything specific, and continue to claim that their bargain is “an alliance.” It’s not quite the arrested development and relentless selfishness of The Sopranos, but it’s along the same spectrum, and it works well as the basis for the film.

Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi emphasize this theme with their compositions, constantly shooting the actors to look small, especially in the face of grown-up possessions. Steve Flemmi is shrunk into a small bit of the frame dominated by an open garage and the car within it, as though he is not up to the size of adulthood. Bulger is pushed to the side in scenes he shares with his mother as she takes center stage, even though her action is limited, as though she is really still the dominating figure. Billy Bulger and Connolly meet in a hotel lobby sitting in almost comically oversized chairs, as though they are children trying to fill the adult seats. Their visual imagination doesn’t extend much into other areas, with the film showing the same cold, dark, blue-heavy lighting and coloring that one would expect, and yet its communication of its message through composition is as strong as any film outside of Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978).

As much as I can praise the way this film makes that point, I do also have to point out that there is a significant amount of time that the film spends filling in its story and ignoring that point. At those times, it instead devolves into a watered down copycat Martin Scorsese film, from the almost obnoxious musical cues (never as on-point as Scorsese’s) to the glee it takes in mayhem and violence in daylight. Editing about 15 minutes out of the film would have made it stronger and more cohesive, but sometimes we have to allow some concessions for films based on true events, since they have to serve those events and people as well as the narrative of the film itself. And even those sequences are more cliche than bad, providing some enjoyment even though they do not further the point the film is making.

Physical transformations have always been catnip to Oscar voters, so Johnny Depp’s performance as Bulger–nearly unrecognizable with his thinning hair, deathly palor, skeletal build, and rotting teeth–is sure to get attention. However, in this case it’s deserved attention. There is a subtle intelligence and quiet menace to his deliberate movements and quiet, simple vocal tone. It’s a surprising performance for the often over-the-top Depp–a man who so rarely seems human in his performances that it’s sometimes difficult to believe he is human in his real life.

The rest of the cast is rather uneven. Jesse Plemons is, as always, excellent, and nearly as unrecognizable as Depp. He gets very little screen time and even less dialogue, and yet he is able to paint a realistic character, which is a real testament to his skill in the role. Benedict Cumberbatch is one of the best actors in the world, and his facility with accents is almost as impressive as his acting skill. Kevin Bacon is someone who doesn’t get a lot of attention for his ability, but we shouldn’t forget that he is an excellent actor, and a role that could easily have turned into a cartoon works well in his hands. But Joel Edgerton, playing the FBI handler who made the deal with Bulger in the first place, is a mess. It’s as though he took all of the worst things of Johnny Depp’s worst performances that Depp left behind and decided to apply them to his performance, so that he came across as a rather ridiculous caricature of humanity. And Julianne Nicholson was stiff and difficult throughout the film, coming across as someone who didn’t really feel what she claimed, and I doubt that it was intentional.

One of the film’s more obvious weaknesses is Junkie XL’s score. It’s full of a level of Mickey Mousing that seems wholly out of place in modern film, and it’s often jumping out at us, drawing our attention away from the film instead of heightening the experience.

Black Mass is definitely a film to be recommended. It’s not perfect, but other than Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA 1941) and Ladri di Biciclette (Vittorio de Sica, Italy 1948), what is? It’s a very good film that does some things as well as you can ask a film to do them, and it’s a fascinating story, even in a fictionalized form.

Notes

  • It seems like every third film in the last decade has been all about “Southie.” Maybe it’s just because Red Sox fans have been annoying me so much in that time, but I really don’t want to hear anything about “Southie” again.
  • “I thought Boggs had a good game last night. Looked good at the plate.” No shit. Did people really need to point that out? The guy was one of the best hitters of all time–he almost always looked good at the plate.
  • It felt weird to see Adam Scott in something serious.
  • I didn’t spend a lot of time researching it, but apparently Bulger claims that Connolly was, essentially, on his payroll. I don’t know enough to come to a conclusion on that fact, but since that was the first explanation for Connolly’s behavior that came to mind for me, I’m betting it was for others as well.
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