Boston, specifically the criminal underbelly of Boston, has always been something Hollywood struggles to convincingly portray. Other than the films of Beantown export Ben Affleck, the Bostonian aura only functions as a tool exploited by generic films in order to hide their flaws. This includes The Departed, a great movie in its own right, but one that easily could’ve been set in any other American urban hub with a culture of organized crime. Gone are the days when a film like The Friends of Eddie Coyle or Dennis Leary’s Monument Ave. can exist. Now, making a “Boston movie” simply means taking a script, dropping the “r’s” from the dialogue, and tossing in a couple Red Sox references.
Black Mass, the highly-anticipated new film from Scott Cooper, does little to buck this unfortunate trend. It sells itself as the story of notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger’s relationship with the FBI but, in reality, tries to tell so many different stories within the aforementioned premise that everything ends up feeling underdeveloped. It attempts to fill in the gaps with nonlinear exposition from Whitey’s confidants. Bulger does something on screen in realtime, and then we’re immediately and explicitly explained the impact of his actions as if we’re too dumb to put two and two together. Black Mass acts as if every great gangster film that came before it doesn’t exist. This is a peculiar narrative decision given the fact that the gangster subgenre has always been the beating heart of American cinema, and an especially frustrating one seeing as individual moments in Black Mass are so clearly trying to emulate far superior films like Goodfellas or Donnie Brasco.
There’s a scene in the second act where Bulger -played admirably by a pale, rotten-toothed, blue-eyed Johnny Depp- is fucking around with one of his FBI handlers. Bulger intimidates him, only to reveal that he’s joking well past the points when things get awkward. It’s the “funny guy” scene from Goodfellas, only without the morally ambiguous, mind-numbingly entertaining tone of Scorsese’s opus. And without Joe Pesci.
Most of the players in Black Mass do a fine job despite the script forcing them into archetypal roles that allow little room for nuanced expression. As I stated above, Depp is convincing. I don’t think it’s the glorious comeback some are making it out to be, but it’s certainly a welcome appearance given Depp’s questionable role choices over the last decade. It irks me to think about how many roles Depp must’ve passed on over the years due to his commitment to the Pirates franchise and the lesser films of Tim Burton. The makeup artists do a fine job with Bulger as well. Making someone as pretty as Depp look so menacing is a tall task. Much of Bulger’s visual power here stems from his facial appearance.
The real star of this film, however, is Joel Edgerton. He plays John Connolly, the FBI agent fresh out the Southie projects who, not entirely legally, sets the wheels of Bulger’s relationship with the Bureau in motion. Edgerton, who’s quietly become a very accomplished character actor/thriller director, is a revelation here. He does such a great job making us believe that when he’s struggling to convince the FBI heads that working with Bulger is the right thing to do, he’s also struggling to convince himself. His accent is PERFECT. It’s not the over-dramatized “lahk my cah in the yahd behind fenway pahk” Boston accent you hear in movies. It sounds like a man with an accent trying to hide it, which is what people with noticeable accents actually do. I almost feel like Black Mass would’ve been a better film had it been solely focused on Connolly with Bulger just appearing for a few key scenes a la De Niro as Capone in The Untouchables (another film that Black Mass wants to be, by the way).
Elsewhere, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, the brother of Whitey, who happens to be a state senator. Characters in the film love to talk about how Billy is “the most powerful man in Boston”, and we’re hit over the head with the question/motif of which Bulger brother really is. Other than that, Billy has little to do, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not sure what logic went into Cumberbatch’s casting beyond “Oh? Benedict Cumberbatch? He’s good, get him”. Forget the fact that his overt Britishness makes pulling off a Boston accent impossible (it’s really, really bad). It’s more than that. No effort was made to make Cumberbatch and Depp look similar in any way. They fatten Depp’s face and try to make him look ugly, yet, Cumberbatch has this sleek, intellectual European sexiness about him that’s impossible to hide (it’s what made him such a great Sherlock).
Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, and Adam Scott all plays FBI dudes, while Corey Stoll plays a prosecutor. None do anything memorable. Same goes for the ladies and slew of character actors that make up Bulger’s gang.
Black Mass is weird in how it handles Bulger as a man. It rightfully refuses to romanticize him, but it’s also scared to be critical. It just is. The film hints at some interesting motivations, and then forgets about them entirely. We’re told via the narration that the deaths of his son and mother had a lasting impact on Bulger’s sanity, but nothing in Depp’s performance shows it. We see Bulger help a neighborhood women with her groceries early in the film, but nothing else comes from his place in the community. Later, the film briefly touches on Bulger’s lottery fixing and his involvement with the IRA. Black Mass tries to cover so much that it ends up covering nothing at all. There’s no focus.
Scott Cooper’s first two films were Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, a couple flawed but intriguing works that suggested he had a bright future as a stylistic auteur of americana cinema. What happened to that style? Black Mass, on a filmmaking level, is done by the books. There’s a scene where Bulger and his Winterhill Gang go to commit a murder; they pack into a car and the camera rests on the back window as we drive down a block on South Boston, showing the back of the gangsters motionless heads as they get ready for another day on the job. It’s really the only image from the film that I distinctly remember. No effort is made to make the violence cinematic or to bring the city to life. We’re told about the Italians in the North End and the Irish in Southie, but unless your familiar with the city, nothing in the films look lets you know where you are.
Black Mass is certainly a watchable movie. It’s not horrible, it’s just a grave disappointment given the talent involved. Maybe Warner Bros. didn’t want Cooper to get creative. But the story of Bulger, not necessarily Bulger himself, deserves a better film than this. You give great source material, a sizable budget, and a great cast to a talented young director, and you expect much better than this. I don’t know who’s to blame, but someone is. What was one of the years most-anticipated films is likely to find itself left out of the discussion all together.