The myth and style of the American Gangster, and the gangster film, in our culture is an interesting one. The cool, bad guy who no one really could dream of being like, but somewhere, deep in the psyche, we have this odd, unsettling enjoyment in following and watching. Then there is the reality. Not the flashy intrigue of history shows and movies, but the deep down honesty that these people were ruthless killers and run amok on communities, cities and countries. The idea and delivery of covering the myth and reality of a ferocious gangster is presented in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass. A solid film that does not bring anything new to the genre but is constructed and presented in a way that gets across the realities and circumstances of one of the most brutal vigilantes in United States history.
The film mainly portrays the relationship between James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), Depp is absolutely fantastic, and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). They were childhood friends and both went different routes to become successful, even though both ways were full of lies, cheating and covering up a massive amount of brutality conducted by Bulger and his notorious Winter Hill Gang of South Boston. An alliance was created between the two so Bulger would be somewhat be absolved from his previous criminal activity, while he basically becomes an informant for Connolly to aid in bringing down the Italian mob in Boston, Bulger’s immediate rivals. Bulger could not keep his hands clean and continued racketeering and conducting murders while working secretly with FBI. This all came to an end when the DA started investigating in to why Bulger was not being arrested for his known, obvious criminal activity. After Bulger was let know they were coming after him, he fled and was on the lam for 16 years before being caught in California. He was ratted out by everyone that was close to him along the way.
Cooper’s film shows the world that Bulger resides in. A world of bars, seedy dealings, brutal murders and informing with the archenemy, the FBI. It also exhibits Connolly’s more clean-cut world that is full of a man wanting to be a gangster like Bulger, but knowing that this is as close as he ever really wants to get. The detail and setting works and expresses to the honest connection the two men have and how it worked. The film also plays on the tropes of the myth and has a celebrity, glossy feel to it, but leaves out so much history. That is the films biggest flaw and keeps it from hitting one out of the park.
Black Mass shows the people of this world, but fails to give much, at least much more than what was presented, on history and reasons. It almost felt that Cooper held back, and yes, I understand the film is primarily focused on Bulger and Connolly’s relationship and the hunt to nail Whitey, mainly from the fine documentary from Joe Berlinger, Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (2014) and the numerous books about the subject, precisely from the films basis, Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book, “Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal.” Yes, all of this information is out but I would have liked to see more back story, history and why the hell Bulger was like this. The film does do a fine job of showing how violent Bulger was and could be. This was a very violent, hardened man and could not stand people who were weak and would rat on someone else that was close. All I wanted was an extra five or ten minutes of history which would’ve added much to the film.
It also does not feel lived in. It does not have that “I am there” quality like another classic, great Boston crime film, Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Now that is a film that bleeds and breathes Boston, with its not over performed accents and simple focus on culture and hardships. Black Mass looks to glossy, not to fault the wonderful cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi, but it does not feel deep, weathered or inhabited. The actors felt too pretty and, yes, a little too much make up. I wanted that feel and that history, but I got a film that was pretty much by the book and never pulled itself out of the middle. That is not to say I did not like the film, because it is well made and acted, but I never got sucked in and lost at the theater, and that is what I wanted. I wanted more.
After saying all that, the biggest treat of this Boston crime saga is the performance from Johnny Depp. He soaks into the villainy and ruthlessness of Bulger and he is almost unrecognizable. He wears icy blue contact lenses and carries atop a dirty yellow and gray hair that is heavily receding, and he makes it work. You believe every devious move he makes and his deceitful, ferocious stare scares the hell out of you as if a rabid dog, who has not eaten in days, weighs you down in a lonely, dark alley. Depp is so good and should receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. I love seeing him back doing some quality work.
The rest of the cast is solid. Edgerton is good as Connolly and expresses a man full of hidden frustrations and one that begins to live a successful high life as basically Bulger’s infromant/sidekick. I felt his accent and exuberant antics were a little over performed and too much. He is so much better in the quiet, less heightened scenes. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s brother, a Massachusetts State Senate politician, and delivers some tight, well acted scenes. Cumberbatch is good all the time. The Winter Hill Gang, composed of John Martorano (W. Earl Brown), Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), and Bulger’s right-hand man Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), all deliver subtle, fine performances. Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard and Kevin Bacon also give exceptional work.
I was truly hoping for more out of Black Mass, but I did not leave the theater disheartened with what was presented before me. Cooper has made a solid, well-acted Boston crime saga that just never pops the cork off the champagne. Depp is stellar as Bulger, and the film is worth watching again just for his amazing work here. He is phenomenal. Black Mass is a gangster film, but does not come anywhere close to the classics like, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and GoodFellas.
Photo credit by IMDB.