BLACK MASS Movie Review – Sinks Under the Weight of Depp’s Latex Appliances
After what seemed like a never-ending series of bombs and misfires culminating with Mortdecai earlier this year, Johnny Depp’s career as an A-list leading man seemed all but over (next year’s Pirates of the Caribbean notwithstanding), but Depp finally found a role to fit his peculiar talents and makeup fetish in Black Mass, a derivative, flaccid biopic of James “Whitey” Bulger, the South Boston gangster and crime boss who disappeared in 1995 only to be found 16 years later living a life of relative ease and comfort in retirement on the West Coast. Less a tale of a gangster’s rise and fall than one about Bulger’s ultra-violent consolidation of power as a result of Bulger’s morally questionable, ethically dubious alliance with the FBI, specifically a one-time, childhood acquaintance turned agent, John Connelly (Joel Edgerton).
Working from a screenplay credited to Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace, Crazy Heart) opts to start not with Bulger’s formative years as a career felon (he served a nine-year sentence for multiple crimes that included stays in Alcatraz and Leavenworth), but with Bulger in his mid-forties, a mid-level gangster with his own crew. When he’s not shaking down local businesses, legal and otherwise, for extortion money, he’s holding court with his crew at their favorite bar. A violent, hair-trigger temper makes him a feared man, but that doesn’t stop him from making an example of a business associate who insults him publicly. Bulger expects complete loyalty from his crew and unquestioning obeisance from everyone else. That loyalty, however, only cuts one way; reciprocity isn’t an idea or concept Bulger accepts or embraces.
As a violent, career criminal, Bulgar’s personality and behavior places him firmly in sociopath territory. He’s charming when he wants to be, though veiled threats and his reputation make anyone who encounters extremely compliant, showing zero remorse or empathy (both key characteristics of sociopathic behavior) toward anyone except his mother – he’s nothing if not the clichéd “mama’s boy” – or his young, preteen son. For Whitey, women are dispensable, interchangeable, and ultimately, forgettable, a trait Black Mass reflects throughout its two-hour running time. The screenplay relegates women to supporting, supportive role (e.g., mothers, wives, and girlfriends) or worse (e.g., prostitutes). Their minimal screentime seems to mirror Whitey’s disinterest in women – or rather Cooper and his screenwriters’ – in essence turning Whitey into a monk of the celibate kind, albeit one without the faintest trace of religious conviction (despite an obligatory, ritualistic visit to a Catholic Church or two). He’s driven by the insatiable hunger for power, status, and respect typical of gangsters.
Of course, Black Mass isn’t a domestic drama. Instead, it’s a film centered on the twisted, destructive notions of masculinity typical of gangsters and the films that portray them. Cooper knows the gangster genre – perhaps too well – often skirting past homage to certain gangster scenes (e.g., Joe Pesci’s “funny” scene in Godfellas) into parody. A loose, episodic structure, and seemingly ageless characters doesn’t help momentum wise either. But it’s Depp’s mesmerizing turn, albeit a turn that’s hampered by the screenplay’s simplistic approach to character, and Bulger’s corrosive relationship with Connelly that temporarily distracts moviegoers from Black Mass’ overt familiarity. When we meet Bulger, he’s well past redemption of any kind. He’s already brutal, violent, and ruthless. Though tribal by nature, Connelly’s initial mix of naiveté, idealism, and ambition mark him as a tragic figure, primed for a long fall from grace soon after he brings Bulger into the FBI as an informant. Bulger not only uses that relationship to his advantage, eliminating rivals with the FBI’s help, but he slowly, inexorably begins to pull in Connelly into the criminal life.