There are moments in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass that move beyond lurid spectacle in an open appeal to the viewer’s senses and moral respectability. In the film, Johnny Depp plays real life Boston mass murderer, psychopath, and career criminal James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, Jr. with plenty of aplomb and earned menace, his performance equal parts sentimental and domineering. Under Cooper’s deliberate direction, Depp becomes a monster in the surrounding film, and, at times, seeks to outdo the actual actions of the performer’s namesake beast of South Boston. It would be undeniably hard to imagine a more despicable character to attempt to breathe even the smallest shred of humanity into, and yet Depp does so to a much larger extent than would seem imaginable.
Over the course of its two-hour runtime, Depp is able to turn in what is, without a doubt, one of the most taut crime drama performances of the past few years, alongside an intimate appraisal of a number of truly despicable people. As the film erupts in violence, there is a certain illicit camaraderie to be found in playing the voyeur to Depp’s actions, enacted both directly and indirectly, but always explicitly and without remorse. There is no justification for the events that unfold within Cooper’s film, save for the self-interest that is built-up surrounding the Bulger character as he is interpreted by Depp, playing one of the most interesting cinematic monsters of the still young twenty-first century.
And yet, there is a lot to be said against this latest true-crime blockbuster. When compared to other masterpieces of the gangster film sub-genre, Cooper and Depp seem unable to come up with a narrative context against which much of the film’s amoral outlook on the violence that it depicts without censure or authorial comment can be situated. In terms of directorial stance, there is little to suggest that Cooper feels anything about the way in which his audience is meant to process what is occurring on screen, no matter how depraved it inevitably becomes.
Watching Depp mercilessly gun down a supporting character at the halfway mark stands out as a true turning point in the film’s narrative, wherein the violence ceases to be mere entertainment as spectacle and becomes sadistic in the complacency that it implies on behalf of the viewer. Likewise, it becomes difficult to discern or decipher who we are supposed to be rooting for in a particularly intimate scene held between Depp and the wife of Joel Edgerton, played by Julianne Nicholson. Depp as Bulger appears unambiguously threatening, albeit simultaneously alluring in his conniving ability to both charm and terrify his seemingly complicit prey, both within the film’s narrative and outside of it in the movie theater, Depp tasked with walking the fine line between devil and saint.
On the other end of the spectrum, Martin Scorsese attempts much of the same deconstruction of moralizing narrative tropes in both Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. As Cooper shies away form condemning his subjects through dramatic interpretation, Scorsese is compelled to through the subversive effects of comedy and satire. Cinematic characters like Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort are disgusting and misogynistic, and yet they are appealing to watch largely through the medium by which Scorsese delivers their stories. In both formerly mentioned films, ethical impropriety is addressed tacitly through slapstick, lampoon, and meta-fictional misdirection. Actors Ray Liotta and Leonardo DiCaprio play unwitting clowns meant to entertain audiences addressed via post-modern storytelling convention, with Hill and Belfort allowed to break the fourth wall and distance their performers from otherwise touchy subjects that they have otherwise embraced wholeheartedly in performance.
But Depp is never granted the same disarming effects in the performance of his own take on yet another vile degenerate. Bulger is near unwatchable in his uncompromising appraisal of his own actions, exhibiting no mercy or senses of guilt concerning entirely unjustified actions. In the race to the top of the Boston Irish Mob, Cooper’s Winter Hill Gang takes great courage and pride in their collective willingness to engage in violence and fraud, leaving the audience with little to feel regarding the characters’ ambitions and motivations in so doing. There is a lot to be gained from such a cold, nihilistic stance on movie violence and depravity, but without even a tinge of a flair for aesthetic invention, a la Quentin Tarantino, or even a little light-hearted existentialism, as seen in many a Coen brothers’ film, Black Mass is rendered a little stale and hard to swallow, its narrative largely without point beyond the telling of its biographical source material and meticulously regurgitated history.
Nevertheless, Depp may never play another character as intimately appealing as his James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, Jr. ever again, which makes Cooper’s film something of a modern marvel. Even as viewers must recoil from his dry, repugnant demeanor, it’s hard to refrain from embracing the character wholeheartedly, as in some of the quieter moments over the course of the film’s first act, such as those domestic scenes held between Depp and the Bulger matriarch, or when Depp is depicted at home with a soon to be ex-wife and late son, when something tender emerges from beneath the menace. In what is a truly punishing film, Cooper and Depp are remarkably adept at making a monster as horrifying as “Whitey” Bulger into a domestic pet at times, his homicide and bribery mere parlor tricks enacted for the passing amusement of those temporarily willing to engage with such transgressions themselves through the act of willing spectatorship.
Black Mass is an exceedingly capable true crime spectacle that never shies away from the lurid appeal that it holds for its audience, no matter how harshly one might judge its apparent nihilistic tone and thematic vacancy as an example of mainstream cinematic storytelling. Films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street might be more readily distancing in their approach towards their decided subjects, but in Cooper’s new film such distancing is not only negated, but largely proven unnecessary in the power of the production’s star performers. Depp exudes an undeniable charisma as one of contemporary cinema’s greatest villains, but in his coy flirtation with the viewer’s senses juxtaposed against sequences of brutal carnage, he almost becomes an anti-hero, an American Psycho of the twenty-first century.