Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch
There are few genres as enduring in American cinema as the gangster film (see The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Casino, for starters). These films collectively explore our cultural fascination with violent, charismatic criminals — self-made figures who operate outside the system to great personal gain and at the expense of law, order, and often many lives. Generally, these films portray the gangster’s world as governed by highly intricate systems of hierarchy, fealty, and unwritten yet brutally enforced codes of behavior (no snitching!).
Gangster films tend to be as formulaic as the gangs they portray are rigid, and director Scott Cooper’s (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) latest, Black Mass, is no exception. The film presents a compressed version of the real-life story of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the notorious South Boston crime boss who rose in the 70’s and 80’s from being a relatively small-time gangster to becoming one of the city’s central kingpins.
His success was due in no small part to a complicated alliance with the FBI, which was predicated on Bulger purportedly providing information against the North End’s Italian Mafia. For Bulger, the Mafia was bad for business, and the FBI’s crusade to bring down the mob (and gain acclaim and glory in the process) was a convenient opportunity to eliminate the competition. In exchange, the Bureau allowed his influence to expand unchecked for years, during which time Bulger led his brutal Winter Hill Gang with little opposition.
The movie explores Bulger’s ties to the Bureau through his relationship with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up in the same South Boston neighborhoods as Bulger and his brother, Massachusetts senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch). An air of fatalistic resignation hangs over the exchanges between Bulger and Connolly: as one character explains, “We went straight from playing cops and robbers on the playground, to doing it for real on the streets.”
Working from a screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk (adapted from a book written by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, who helped expose the relationship between Bulger and the FBI), Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (reteaming after Out of the Furnace) use tight framings and close, intimate camerawork to infuse the film with a grim, claustrophobic sense of foreboding. The film’s interrogation-room framing device effectively provides structure to the story.
The movie’s pacing is so controlled that at times it almost seems to stop entirely. Sometimes this effect works, particularly in the sequences where Cooper eschews narrative service in favor of exchanges which reveal the nature of his characters, like a chilling dinner party scene at the Connolly home. It is in these moments that the exceptional cast really shines, particularly Depp, who delivers a frighteningly good performance, even if the uncanny makeup effects used to transform him into the likeness of Bulger somewhat work against him. The film also features a number of standout contributions by terrific supporting actors, including Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, and Kevin Bacon.
All of this amounts to an incredibly well-crafted film, but one that ultimately feels hollow. Aside from being a superficial character study of a notorious crime figure, Black Mass is also a chronicle of bureaucratic mismanagement, a cautionary tale of the corrupting powers of hubris and ambition, and also, to a lesser extent, an exploration of ideas of masculinity, loyalty, and success within the tightly woven working class community of 1970s South Boston. And this of course is the film’s fundamental problem: in trying to cover enough ground to fill five different movies, it covers none of them well enough at all.