Review: Black Mass (2015)

Black Mass is a handsomely-mounted gangster picture that’s not so much a biopic of South Boston kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger but instead a procedural of the FBI corruption that enabled his reign of terror. It’s a film that is both too literal about its historically-based events and too distant, only interested in its central character as a monster who haunted South Boston for two decades. This horror movie quality makes it appropriate that Johnny Depp play Bulger, as his predisposition for affectation and acting under layers of ghastly makeup fits perfectly with this take on Bulger. And Depp is very good in the role, equally scary and intelligent, a human-sized rat who you could picture sucking the blood of virgins after killing their snitch fathers. Too bad that Black Mass doesn’t let Depp dig deeper into the character. Black Mass is a decent film, but it limits itself with its restrictive approach to Bulger. By retaining the subject matter and actors, but merely taking different approach, it could’ve been a great film.

The film follows the crime reign of James “Whitey” Bulger in South Boston from 1975 to 1995. It frames the story through the police depositions of Bulger’s crew (Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown) and focuses on Bulger’s role as an FBI-informant for his childhood friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). As Bulger helps Connolly and the FBI take down the Italian Mafia, Bulger fills their void in South Boston, using his FBI protection to become untouchable and eliminate all his competition to gain control of the city’s drug and gambling rackets, racking up over a dozen murders in the process.

From the police depositions that start each new phase of the film to the intense focus on John Connolly’s personal and professional life, Black Mass is more police procedural than anything else. We watch Connolly get Bulger to agree to inform for the FBI. We watch the FBI empower Bulger to take over South Boston, and we see Connolly eventually brought down and arrested due to his own rampant corruption. Connolly’s rise and fall provides the film with its main dramatic arc. He’s essentially the film’s main character. Therein lies many of Black Mass’s limitations.

While Joel Edgerton is very good in the role, Connolly’s rise and fall is a familiar tale of police corruption. I appreciate the small moments of Edgerton’s performance, especially Connolly’s conversations with his wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), where you can sense a flicker of Connolly’s self-awareness amid his blatant self-deception. But as director Scott Cooper and writers Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk frame it, Connolly’s corruption absolves the FBI as an institution from greater responsibilities. Connolly becomes a narrative and moral patsy. Little scenes of Connolly’s boss (Kevin Bacon) objecting to Connolly’s actions with Bulger or of a young new DA (Corey Stoll) working to bring down both Connolly and Bulger solidify the notion that Connolly was merely a rotten apple in the basket. Black Mass ends up more an indictment of John Connolly as a person than the FBI as an organization. This robs it of some thematic resonance, again simplifying the story into good guys and bad guys, allowing institutional corruption to linger around the edges.

Not to mention, the focus on Connolly draws away from any real engagement with Bulger as a human being. Depp’s performance as Bulger towers over the rest of the film, the pale blue of his prosthetic contact lenses and his pasty white skin making him look like a vampire as he stares at his underlings, contemplating whether he should kill them to erase the chance of them ratting him out. One scene where Bulger dispatches of a girl (Juno Temple) who unknowingly says the wrong thing to the police is truly terrifying, Depp’s quiet politeness as Bulger building tension until his violence inevitably lashes out. But we only ever see Bulger as the monstrous gangster. Although there are overtures towards depicting his home life, such as scenes with his girlfriend (Dakota Johnson) and son (Luke Ryan), none of these scenes delve into the character’s psyche or even try to explain how a human being ended up becoming so violent and awful. They deliver platitudes and empty stereotypes of gangsters, much like how some of the scariest scenes in the film seem mere copies of better moments in Goodfellas or Miller’s Crossing.

This distance from Bulger lends Black Mass a horror movie feeling—something only compounded by the film’s sinister title. But unlike Nosferatu or Freddy Krueger, James Bulger is a real man who was driven by real human urges to commit his crimes. It’s dishonest to portray him as anything less than human.

Black Mass is well made and has moments of quiet power. Scott’s use of close-ups, in particular, is powerful, forcing us to stare into the faces of these characters and comprehend their monstrous actions in a way that the narrative doesn’t. But the film has no interest in its central gangster as a real man who did real crimes in the real world. It can only comprehend him as a monster, devoid of soul or compassion.

For a film so tethered to the facts of history, Black Mass cannot comprehend reality in the most personal sense: that a real boy living up in South Boston grew up to be a homicidal psychopath and that he didn’t cease to be that same Southie boy when he did so.

5 out of 10

Black Mass (2015, USA)

Directed by Scott Cooper; written by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill; starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, W. Earl Brown, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson.