Black Mass is an entertaining, vibrant film, but as I watched I couldn’t help but think of it as Scorsese-lite. There are a lot of things that will be familiar to those who have seen Goodfellas and especially The Departed, including a scene in which a person can’t tell if a guy is really mad or just joking, and a festival of Boston accents. We even hear the word “wicked.”
Movies about gangsters never go out of style, not since James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson first popularized the genre. I think secretly we who are law-abiding citizens envy organized crime bosses, because they get away with things with such impunity, but then are always punished, which takes away our guilty feelings.
This time the figure of evil is James “Whitey” Bulger, who ruled the rackets in South Boston for a decade. He is played with steel-eyed brilliance by Johnny Depp (the blue contacts seem both piercing and dead at the same time) a career criminal who has done time at both Leavenworth and Alcatraz but in 1975 runs the Winter Hill Gang, battling for turf with the Mafia of North Boston.
He is the approached by an old Southie friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, hyped as if smoking crank) now an FBI agent, with an amazing offer: Connolly will get the feds to let Bulger alone if Bulger will give them info on the Mafia. Connolly talks his skeptical boss (Kevin Bacon) into the deal, and Bulger runs wild, taking over the city. It’s only when Bulger goes too far, and commits murder in broad daylight, that Connolly’s plan crumbles and Bulger has to go on the lam.
Along with The Departed, Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town, the Boston crime film has become it’s own subgenre. All of these films deal with the devotion felt in the Irish community. Bulger is shown as loving his mother and being a dutiful father (although he tells his young son, “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen”) but also one who arranges a shipment of guns to the IRA. The accents provide a panoply of nasal squawks, and I’ll leave it to Boston natives to sort out the good ones from bad–I suspect Edgerton’s was good, Bacon’s not so good.
Directed by Scott Cooper, who has not shown any particular flair before (he directed the simpy tolerable Crazy Heart) seems to have watched his fair share of organized mob films. There are several scenes here that we have all seen–when a person is drawn into an empty lot or back room and then viciously snuffed. My recommendation would have been never turn your back on Whitey Bulger.
Black Mass is violent fun, but it’s only really worthwhile for Depp’s performance. He’s been wallowing in big payday, cartoonish roles for a while now, so it’s good to have him back in the land of serious acting. While the script does not give us much depth to Bulger, Depp supplies it. I loved a couple of scenes in particular. One, in which he is torturing a man who informed him on, he ever so slightly blinks when the man says he had no choice. “You always have a choice,” Depp says , “you just made the wrong one.” Then there is a scene with Edgerton’s wife, played by Julianne Nicholson. Bulger senses she doesn’t like what her husband is up to, and in a scene so filled with creepiness it will make your skin crawl, he threatens her subtly by running his hand across her face, caressing her with menace.
The film could have done without Benedict Cumberbatch as Depp’s brother, who in a stranger-than-fiction turn of events, is a powerful state senator. His appearance in the film seems to be only because it happens to be true. And then we have Peter Sarsgaard as a sniveling hit man. He seems to be only doing parts that require him to be completely repulsive.
Go to Black Mass to see Depp and stay for the old-fashioned, if cliched, gangster fun. It’s no Goodfellas, but what is?