James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is one of the most infamous criminals in U.S History and Black Mass wants to make you feel what it’s like to be manipulated by this high functioning psychopath. Director Scott Cooper does his best job to make one of the least glamorous gangster films of all time. In a beautiful ensemble chorus account from Whitey Bulger’s cache of supporters turned ‘rats’ by imprisonment, we watch the rise and largely unsatisfying fall of one of the U.S most violent criminal kingpins.
Cooper transitions the spotlight of the story using the Citizen Kane device of the story unfolding in interviews with the key characters. Each of these broken characters look like they’ve served a sentence in his employ before they’ve even been required to confess to their involvement. Each new chapter of the story is signified by the depressing glare of halogen lights, and their bloated and unkempt faces often filled with disillusionment and regret. Screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth concoct a strange film, because it’s tonally myopic rather than bringing you fun, or sadistic laughs like Goodfellas or Casino. There’s maybe a sequence or two that attempt something resembling respite, the notable one sees Whitey to teach his son the laws of the South Boston jungle, “If no one saw it, it didn’t happen.” Other than a few very brief moments of reflection where Whitey is alone, you’re seeing the carnage that he leaves in his wake from the perspective of his whole team of men, that weren’t as successful in retreating into anonymity.
It’s a solid ensemble that compliments Johnny Depp absolutely crushing it on centre stage. Whitey seems to operate on another time zone to the relative chaos around him. Every word slithers out of his mouth with purpose before cracking like a whip. He wants to get up close and personal with everyone in his life, reminding them that they’re safe in his presence by his good grace. While he most definitely frightens when he’s dishing out some blood curdling violence, it’s the moments that he’s making someone feel secure and reassured of his allegiance that usually follows some ungodly torture. Connolly’s wife Marianne, played gracefully by Julianne Nicholson, has a scene where she decides to feign sickness instead of hosting dinner. Whitey goes to her room under the guise of checking if she’s alright. Instead, in easily the most violating and disturbing caress, to monitor her temperature Whitey makes it clear that both she and John are mice to be made a meal out of when the snake gets hungry.
Joel Edgerton’s John Connolly begins his association with such hope; protecting an ultimately ‘small-time’ gangster from being swept up in the FBI’s crusade against the Mafia. However, Whitey’s reptilian eyes and fearlessness in the face of the impending threat seems to have a lure that instantly makes you willing to compromise. Taking down the Angiulo crime family becomes a legitimate reason to make a deal with this white devil; selling a piece of your soul for a bigger fish. However once that fish is landed, Whitey immediately looks to bring Connolly further into his inner circle, to taint him by making him a passenger on a trip where a former associate is murdered. The linkage between Senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother Whitey isn’t as accusatory as the associations with the FBI or his accomplices. Cumberbatch and Depp play the brothers with respect that borders on reverence. Depp’s Whitey is a different animal in the presence of his brother; the legitimate power and influence that he’s acquired isn’t by accident. When Connolly first approaches Billy as a gateway to get a face-to-face meeting with Whitey, you watch a warm, regal and gracious man turn cold as steel. The Bulger’s orbits rarely intersect, and the film wants to stay ambivalent about the details of what Billy knew or didn’t about his brother’s operation.
One of the victims of the film has to be the Boston accent. While some people in the film do a sensational job wrestling around that ‘Southy’ (South Boston) vernacular; for the most part it’s linguistic butchery of the highest order. There was a great moment after Cumberbatch’s first appearance as Senator Billy Bulger appeared on screen visiting his family home and interacted with Whitey that my wife leant over and whispered angrily, “what’s wrong with his voice?!” The weakest performer in the film, who also does a pretty terrible job with the accent, is Dakota Johnson. While almost every actor seems to elevate in the presence of Depp at the peak of his powers, she feels like she’s acting in another film.
Black Mass has the ambition to be Goodfellas; the fact that it failed doesn’t make the film a failure though; it’s worth your time for Depp alone.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by:Scott Cooper
Written by: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill
Johnny Depp: James ‘Whitey’ Bulger
Joel Edgerton: John Connolly
Benedict Cumberbatch: Billy Bulger
Dakota Johnson: Lindsey Cyr
Kevin Bacon: Charles McGuire
Peter Sarsgaard: Brian Halloran
Jesse Plemons: Kevin Weeks
Rory Cochrane: Steve Flemmi
David Harbour: John Morris
Adam Scott: Agent Fitzpatrick
Corey Stoll: Fred Wyshak
Julianne Nicholson: Marianne Connolly
W. Earl Brown: John Martorano
Juno Temple: Deborah Hussey