Crime drama (and drama generally) is very beholden to the concept of the charismatic villain — the charming, affable antagonist who will keep you close until it’s time to slit your throat. It’s easy to see why; such characters make for compelling viewing. What’s more, they make it easier for audiences to understand why protagonists and other characters get close to a figure of evil — because that figure of evil is great! Hey, I’d have a drink with him!
The 400-Word Review: Black Mass
By Sean Collier
September 21, 2015
But James “Whitey” Bulger, as portrayed by Johnny Depp in the Black Mass, is not Tony Soprano. He is not Walter White. He is a chilling, stunningly violent and occasionally repulsive madman whom the FBI disastrously propped up in an effort to fight other organized-crime figures from the 1970s through the ’90s in Boston.
Bulger — in this film, anyway — is not charming. He is not charismatic. And Black Mass is a fairly straightforward document of how someone so loathsome was protected by the federal government for many years.
Director Scott Cooper — who previously dove into geographically-specific criminal organizations with 2013’s underrated Out of the Furnace — is less interested in probing Bulger’s mind than he is in relaying the facts, drawn from a 2001 nonfiction book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill. Bulger’s ascent from small-time crook to ... small-time crook with impunity and influence is presented as a matter of coincidence: As Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) rises in power as a Massachusetts state senator, the siblings’ childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) begins a career as an FBI detective.
Connolly sees an opportunity in his working-class roots: Forge an alliance with Bulger, a player in Boston’s Irish-American crime organization, to unite against rival gangs. Bulger’s political ties and relative lack of importance mean he’s not a prime target for the FBI anyway, so the bureau — as represented here by Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) — agrees.
Unfortunately, they fail to see how crazy Bulger is or anticipate how reckless he will become. The performances in Cooper’s film sell the slightly muddy story very well; Depp in particular is stronger than he has been in years. And while the narrative is less than satisfying as a result of its timeline-focused structure, Black Mass is inherently fascinating.
Given the subject matter, how could it not be? It makes you wonder what other monsters are given a free pass.
My Rating: 7/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark