Black Mass

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday September 15, 2015

Johnny Depp stars in 'Black Mass'
Johnny Depp stars in 'Black Mass'  (Source:Warner Bros. Pictures)

Director Scott Cooper delivers a minor masterpiece of mood and menace with "Black Mass," the true crime feature that dramatizes the doings of Boston crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger and his South Boston "Winter Hill Gang."

What "Black Mass" is not, however, is a master work of narrative cohesion or pacing. Those looking for a contemporary classic the stature of "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas" might want to scale their expectations back a bit.

The film takes its balletic rhythms of slow dread and quick, brutal violence from just such classics, especially "Goodfellas." But movies such as these need a tight, well-grounded undergirding in order not simply to lapse into waiting games: Which exchanges are daily routines of joshing and griping? Which are fakeouts of alpha male posturing? Which will lead to someone's brains being splattered, and it's been six minutes since the last whack job, so isn't another one due about now? "Black Mass" invites, rather than transcends this sort of second-guessing.

What's more, the film establishes a few critical themes and follows them, but not by constructing a continuously-unfolding storyline around the story's pitch-black skeletal structure of daylight executions and ruthless criminal schemes. Instead, the narrative consists of barely-connected sequences that start anxiously and end in lethal violence. It's a tale told in (often bloody) chunks.

That's not to say this isn't a film you'll want to see, especially if you're a fan of the genre. Depp delivers an extraordinary performance; his is the chilling and hypnotic star of a psychopathic basilisk (despite a pair of distractingly fake blue contact lenses). Come Oscar time, expect to see his name on the short list because after years of dabbling in caricatures, Depp has now taken it upon himself to remind us how much more he's capable of doing.

The film sports a roster of top-shelf talent, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey's brother, William Bulger, who made his own mark in the world of legitimate pursuits: William Bulger was a Massachusetts state senator (president of the state senate, in fact), and, later, president of the University of Massachusetts. You'd expect this to develop into a family drama about power and choice, fate and personal character; how did William navigate his professional and personal life in a way that both stayed out of Whitey's path of bloodshed, and also keep clear of the destruction he left in his wake?

But that would have been a different, more subtle and intelligent movie, a treatise on individual destiny rather than a cinematic pop song built around lethal refrains. It also would have been the masterpiece this film only imitates. Cumberbatch is left to hint about deeper dramatic issues (which he does through a Boston accent that's as out of place on him as Depp's contacts), but he is not the film's counterbalance.

Instead, Whitey Bulger's opposite number, and contrast, takes the form of boyhood pal and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), whose longtime loyalty to Bulger corrupts him. In professional life as on the playground of their shared youth (so Edgerton tells us in voiceover), it's not always a simple matter to figure out which side of the law either of these two wise guys might be. Edgerton is both Mafia-buster and style mafioso, simultaneously a cop and a robber who plays a shell game with his own superiors to protect Bulger; Whitey plays the role of FBI informant, but only to the extent that he must in order to achieve his own ends.

Of course, by the film's midpoint those early ambiguities wither away, leaving the characters revealed for who they are. At home Connolly swaggers like a supporting player out of "The Godfather," but at work, pinned down by the icy glare of Attorney General Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll), he's a stammering wreck. (His bravado is more successful with boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon).) Connolly might be a Fed, but at heart he's a gangland wannabe, and Whitey Bulger is his hero.

The reverse is far from true; to Bulger, Connolly is utterly disposable. That essential inequity of power, position, and aptitude makes for a merry chase while it lasts, but the movie finally and unceremoniously fizzles. The use of documentary-style scenes in which Bulgar's associates are interviewed as part of their bargains with the feds contribute to this loss of cinematic vitality; they pull the movie unnecessarily out of its narrative tone and style, and remind us repeatedly of the inevitable, historical outcome. There's some muscle and dramatic frisson to the tale of how Bulger, through the FBI's complicity, rose to the criminal influence and worldwide infamy that he did, but that's not consistently used to full effect.

Still, the film does engage, provoke, and sometimes throws off a sick, anxious dazzle, Cooper might yet make a bona fide masterpiece; as yet, he's a talented journeyman showing promise of great things yet to come.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.