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