The 400-Word Review: Black Mass
By Sean Collier
September 21, 2015
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!
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