Black Mass (dir. Scott Cooper)

Posted: October 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

Let’s cut to the chase.  The thing everyone wants to know about “Black Mass” is whether or not Johnny Depp is any good in it.  After all, Depp has gone off the deep end, constantly wanting to do more and more outlandish characters that feel like they belong in sketch comedy instead of film.  “Mortdecai”, “Tusk”, “The Lone Ranger”, and other films have ruined his standing as a good actor that he’d had for a long time.  Then “Pirates of the Caribbean” became a hit, he became an A-lister, and he wanted to do wackier and more outrageous roles.  As a result, he became a much worse actor.  I was never really a fan of the “Pirates” films (I like the second one, but overall I was cold on the whole series), and honestly I’d have to go back to 2007, a full 8 years ago, to see “Sweeney Todd” as the last film I unapologetically liked Depp in.  So now we have Depp playing the lead in a serious dramatic role based on the true story of a notorious mobster, and it looked like he might be back on track.

The problem is that Depp looks nothing like James “Whitey” Bulger, and so he once again finds himself covered in a ton of make-up to play an arch role.  The make-up isn’t badly done, exactly, but Depp doesn’t look like Bulger, or anyone human for that matter.  Standing against other actors who are not in obvious make-up, Depp’s Bulger looks more like a vampire, a nosferatu, than an aging Irish criminal.  In a sense this works, because it gives the Bulger character in the film an extra feeling of evil compared to the other characters and makes him stand out, but it also is distracting and takes you out of what is otherwise a solid, middle of the road gangster picture.  As for Depp himself, well, his performance bears all the hallmarks of a low-key Jack Nicholson impersonation.  I’m not talking an arch, “Heeeeere’s Johnny” Nicholson, but a more subtle Nicholson as seen in earlier films like “Reds”.  This may not be an accident, as Nicholson played a character loosely based on Bulger in “The Departed”, but it’s noticeable in the same way it was noticeable that Heath Ledger adopted various Michael Keaton-as-Beetlejuice inflections when playing the Joker in “The Dark Knight”.  Depp’s performance feels very coptcat-ish.  It’s the sad state of Depp’s career that even despite these reservations this is one of his better performances in a long time.  I wish they had cast another actor, one who looked more like Bulger so the damn make-up wasn’t needed.

Honestly, if we’re talking about someone’s acting, it should be Joel Edgerton, who plays FBI agent John Connelly, the man who invites Bulger to be an informant to the FBi and, as a result, protects Bulger from facing the legal consequences of his actions for decades.  The last time we saw Edgerton, he was playing the reserved and potentially psychotic Gordo in “The Gift”.  If you compare his performance in “The Gift” with his role in “Black Mass”, well, they are extremely different characters, and the fact that Edgerton can play such different characters so damn well is a testament to that man’s ability.  Edgerton is the real star of the film, not Depp.  In fact, the abundance of great actors in “Black Mass”, including roles for Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, and others, make Deep’s flaws stand out even more.  I mean, this is a film where even Dakota Johnson, who played Ana in “Fifty Shades of Grey”, does a good job in her tiny role as the mother of Bulger’s child.

Being based on a true story, “Black Mass” doesn’t follow a traditional narrative plotline.  We start out with Bulger being the head of small organized crime outfit, until he makes a deal with Connelly to give information on his enemies to the FBI in tacit exchange for the Feds leaving him alone.  With nearly free range, Bulger gets involved in everything from professional jai alai to attempting to supply weapons to the IRA.  Bulger is not reserved in using murder, and even does the dirty work himself on a number of occasions.  In addition to FBI protection, his younger brother (Cumberbatch) happens to the a senior member of the State Senate, which also helps matters.  Bulger isn’t a complete monster, as we’re shown he cares about his son and his mother, but there are few redeeming qualities to the man.

The main theme of the film is informing.  The film beings with a member of Bulger’s outfit, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) insisting he is not a rat, before then telling everything he knows about Bulger.  Other members of the team, many years after the fact, also inform.  Bulger himself is seemingly hypocritical as he informs on his competitors (namely the Italian mafia) to the FBI while exactly the most brutal revenge murders on those who inform against him.  In fact, almost all of the people murdered in the film are killed because they inform on someone (I think I counted two murders that had nothing to do with informing, and one murder of someone who could potentially inform in the future but made no moves to do so before he’s killed).  Bulger informs to Connelly, and when Connelly finds out about people informing on Bulger he reports that info to Bulger.  Later, an agent informs on Connelly, both to the FBI and to the newspapers.  “Black Mass”, if nothing else, is about people betraying their confidences to other people, and both how that can lead to people being punished as well as lead to those persons being absolved, or receiving leniency, legally and personally.  It is about how some people inform for their own advantage, and some people inform in desperation.  It’s been recorded that Ben Franklin once said “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”  “Black Mass” seems to be the filmic argument in favor of that statement.

“Black Mass” isn’t noticeable different from other gangster films to warrant standing out from the genre.  It’s of interest to me for having grown up in Rhode Island, where people like the characters in “Black Mass”, even if they’re not in the mafia, do reside, and the film feels authentic having known many people like this.  Because it’s based on actual events, learning of those events is interesting in and of itself.  The idea of a Massachusetts gangster being involved in skimming money from the niche sport of jai alai, or trying to fund Irish terrorists, is really fascinating.  As far as it being a film in and of itself, though, there isn’t really anything here we haven’t seen before.  “Black Mass” is very much of its genre, but it doesn’t rise above it or transcend it.  Also, the ending is abrupt and anticlimactic.  The particular alliance between law enforcement and Bulger, and the idea that the federal government in a great way allowed Bulger to become as big and powerful as he became, is the big distinguisher between this story and others, but it’s not enough to set this film apart from other ones, as the mob paying off law enforcement is a common theme.  It’s just in this case law enforcement wasn’t simply bribed, it created and nurtured the alliance.

The director, Scott Cooper, previous did the similarly good-but-familiar “Crazy Heart”.  The man knows how to direct a good drama, and to get good performances out of his actors, but his films feel very safe and almost hermetic in their familiarity.  I have not seen the film he made between these two, “Out of the Furnace”, but I hope as he goes on he takes more risks, especially in choosing films with more ambitious screenplays, as he has shown himself to have a lot of talent.

If you like mafia films, and you’re interested in the real life story and the subject matter, “Black Mass” is worth seeing.  It’s well directed and mostly well acted, and the story is told in satisfactory way.  It just doesn’t stand out, and Depp is distracting. B.

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