Movie Review: Black Mass
By Ben Gruchow
September 23, 2015

He's dressed as Nosferatu. The only problem is it's not Halloween.

The success of Scott Cooper’s Black Mass depends directly on which story is unfolding at any given moment. Both of the main narratives - the one involving the FBI and their botched backdoor arrangement with James “Whitey” Bulger as an informant, and the one involving Bulger and his obsession with loyalty - are an almighty mess, but this is not a film where judgments of disarray really mean much. It’s actually pretty surprising that the movie isn’t a much bigger and more damaging wreck, and a bigger surprise that it ends up being involving for so much of its running time despite jamming two rather heavily-fictionalized movies (and fairly flimsy ones, at those) into a relatively trim 122 minutes.

The list of what works unambiguously is shorter than the list of what doesn’t, so let’s go ahead and establish the things that Black Mass gets right, chief among them that, yes, Johnny Depp really is pretty spellbinding as Bulger. I can whine and moan about the fact that the character itself is a shallow cinematic interpretation of a man absolutely complicated enough to deserve his own movie (Bulger as written by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk has two modes, and both of them end with, “…on the verge of sudden and decisive violence”), but I can’t and won’t deny that what Depp does with this limited characterization is striking, and consistently so. At no point are we unaware of the actor’s presence, and his cadence and tone are just off enough from the real Bulger to draw attention to the fact that we’re watching a performance (although even so, it’s an impressive impersonation), but we buy into him fully as a dangerously focused and intense criminal.

Nothing else in Bulger’s half of the movie approaches the same amount of precision and activity; Rory Cochrane as Bulger associate Stephen Flemmi comes the closest, and Jesse Plemons’ hardcore loyalist Kevin Weeks registers in the brief screentime he’s allotted. In the other half of the movie, we have Joel Edgerton as FBI agent John Connolly; if you followed the real-world timeline of the Bulger/FBI partnership, you already know that Connolly essentially used the informant protection capabilities of his office to shield Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang from prosecution while simultaneously eliminating the Gang’s enemies and rivals. The movie is more ambiguous about this, at least initially, and Edgerton plays Connolly as a conflicted individual who feels bound by an ingrained sense of neighborhood loyalty while understanding, on many levels, that the arrangement wouldn’t pass any kind of ethical muster.

All of this is presented by Cooper and DP Masanobu Takayanagi with a lot of class and depth, and Black Mass is an easy candidate for awards consideration on that basis, as well as for its flawless production design. It’s frequently not an “attractive” film, but it evokes a mood out of 1970s and 1980s Boston that’s grimy, dim, and cramped; it’s utterly convincing as a world, and that’s no small achievement when it comes to period pieces. Where Cooper and Takayanagi place the camera relative to these surroundings is just as important to establishing the movie’s mood, and they exhibit an impressive ability to cleanly draw focus to the separate elements of each frame without resorting to any kind of showiness.

Takayanagi demonstrated in 2011’s The Grey and 2013’s Silver Linings Playbook that he likes to play with photography that isolates and establishes characters and elements with a heavy regard for symmetrical framing, and Black Mass is particularly adept with finding visually interesting ways to add dimension to the scene. At a time when movies tend to acquit themselves with overzealous digital intermediate and seemingly random hops between shooting styles, it’s nice to see a mid-level commercial film with a clear-eyed, straightforward approach.

It’d be nicer, of course, if that approach were taken in service of something that wasn’t ultimately pretty shallow. Black Mass has style, and it has intensity, but there’s not a whole lot going on in terms of insight or identification. The camera is strictly regarded as a passive observer, which is part of what makes the look of the movie so sinuous and successful. It also means that we need to meet the movie halfway with interpreting character meaning and pathos, and it doesn’t give us a whole lot to work with.

Certainly not nothing; there are moments that display exactly what this material and cast is capable of. To no surprise, most of them involve Depp; a quiet exchange across a dinner table about a family recipe seethes with suspicion and tension, encapsulating Bulger’s regard of trust and loyalty more efficiently and truthfully than any voiceover could (the movie is peppered with voiceovers, and most of them fall distinctly in the realm of re-stating or needlessly explicating action or circumstance that we’ve already drawn lines to, if we’ve been paying attention); a follow-up scene between Bulger and Connolly’s wife Marianne achieves the neat trick of coalescing Depp’s interpretation of Bulger’s capacity for violence, intelligence, and nurturing into a minute or so of flawless and frightening acting.

Part of this weightlessness is due to the nature of the movie as a semi-biographical crime thriller, and some of the same things that held back last month’s Straight Outta Compton can be found here, but that only explains it a little bit; 2007’s Zodiac had a longer running time and a similar amount of complication in the nature of the investigation, but David Fincher turned that seeming limitation into one of the most harrowing and striking procedurals in contemporary cinema. The real culprit is the splicing of two different films into one here; the FBI investigation half, with Connolly, occupies enough incident and intrigue to get us invested - and there’s certainly some artistic license taken with the way the proceedings unfolded - without possessing enough nuance or texture or time to have much of an impact at all at its ultimate resolution.

It’s the same with the Bulger half of the movie, which gains us some investment and mystery because so much of what we see is fictionalized or guessed at. I still found the characters shortchanged here, though, even Bulger himself. The interrogation sequences, while shot handsomely, are pointless. They give us no additional insight and accomplish the unwanted task of simplifying Bulger’s associates and their motivations. Missing from Depp’s portrayal of Bulger is much of what the character thinks of what he’s done. There was a meeting in real life between Weeks and Bulger in Chicago, after the events depicted in the movie, that would have given Black Mass more thematic and emotional weight than the movie’s equivalent - a short conversation in a car during a compressed denouement - gives us.

Calling back to an earlier paragraph in this review, it’s interesting: the list of what doesn’t work in the movie is longer than the list of what does, and yet the parts that don’t necessarily work still possess assets and intrigue. The look and setting of the movie is fantastic; Depp’s work here is by itself better than anything he’s done in the last several years; I have not yet seen 2009’s Public Enemies (although I’m persuaded to now, based solely on what he does here), so this is probably the most tightly-wound and focused that I’ve seen him since Sweeney Todd in 2007. Should Black Mass be seen on its list of merits? Most likely. This arrives at “satisfactory” by the time the end credits roll, even if it gets there mostly on aesthetic.