Overview: During the 70s and 80s, Irish-American mobster James “Whitey” Bulger ruled the streets of South Boston with the help of corrupt FBI agents. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2015; Rated R; 122 minutes.
South Side: There’s an attractive element to gangsters, a certain juxtaposing poetry to their violent ways and strong familial and religious ties, a narrative perfection to their ability to reach great heights before falling hard and fast. These notoriously violent men appeal to our most base instincts, the south side of bodies commanded by lust, hunger, and forward motion. Black Mass is no different in its introduction of these elements or its appeal to these instincts, but it’s a distinctly unglamorous gangster film. Outward displays of wealth and status are secondary to the internal power of these criminals, their assuredness that even in back of cheap bars and dark alleys, they are the most powerful men in America.
For director Scott Cooper, men both good and bad, are defined by the spaces in which they were born. The Blue Ridge Mountains-native Cooper, whose impressive ability to capture lower-class white America, brings his blue-collar sensibilities to the world of organized crime, depicting a world of blue jeans, leather jackets, and beer instead of fedoras, imported suits, and fine wines. The film is most interesting to look at when Cooper is on the streets and interior spaces of Southie, and it’s clear that this is where Cooper is most comfortable. But his time is divided between these gritty, urban spaces, and the clean, gray interiors of the FBI building. It’s a purposeful dichotomy of environment that shows the audience that dirt seeps into even the most seemingly clean spaces. It is here within the government building that the familiar suits, displays of wealth, lies, egos, and ball-busting of traditional gangster movies rear up. The South Side penetrates every space in the film, spreading like a cancerous growth throughout Boston. Cooper makes it clear that despite the distinct physical differences between the mean streets and government hallways, both are filled with their own dark alleys. While it’s partially a shame that Cooper doesn’t get to explore more of the neighborhood and bay areas he excels at shooting, the film’s divide between street-level crime and the corruption of the FBI is the primary reason the film is able to carve out a space for itself amongst the wide-variety of gangster films.
Public Enemy #1: But of course, when the majority of audiences reflect back on Black Mass it will be Johnny Depp’s performance as Whitey Bulger that fills most of their attention. He oozes conviction and control, gives off an almost supernatural evil while delivering a wicked sense of humor, and best of all Depp never turns into caricature. Depp is magnetic, shark-like in his portrayal of Bulger, and it is an unquestionably memorable role. The only downside to the performance is his distracting icy-blue contact lenses that make Bulger seem superficially villainous, like he stepped out of Gotham City. Still, it’s the best thing that Depp has done in a long time (no major award there, I know) but more importantly a reminder that Depp is at his best when he’s used as a character actor instead of a leading man. The film effectively uses Depp as a supporting player, favoring Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent John Connolly as the true lead and driving emotional force of the story. While this selective use of Bulger allows Depp’s performance to stand-out more and drive up the tension in every scene he’s in like a mob-made Hannibal Lecter, Black Mass misses the mark in providing a convincing look at why Whitey Bulger was the most-wanted man in America, second only to Osama Bin Laden. He’s dangerous, smart, and as one character puts it “strictly criminal,” but the script doesn’t explore enough of what Bulger actually did to become the last great American gangster, perhaps because that’s not where the filmmakers’ interest lies.
Rats, Everywhere: While the film falls short on delivering upon Bulger’s notorious status, it more than makes up for it on the side of the FBI. Joel Edgerton likely won’t receive the kind of attention as Depp, but in many ways he plays a more interesting character. A government agent tied to Southie, with a childlike admiration of his neighbor Whitey Bulger, John Connelly is a wannabe gangster. It’s through his story that the film taps into the ideas of what gangsters mean to America—the ability to build yourself up from nothing, to have power and respect regardless of where you were born. The FBI’s use of Bulger as an informant, the falsified documents, and payoffs all display a government just as complicit in creating a cesspool in Boston as the men who carried the guns and sold the drugs. And so the black mass at the heart of the film isn’t simply Bulger or his Winter-Hill Gang, but the FBI alongside them. Whatever similarities it holds to other gangster films, or themes it shares with the superior Departed, Black Mass offers a different view of organized crime by choosing to explore how Whitey Bulger built his own gang right inside one of the greatest intelligence agencies in the world.
Overall: While Black Mass needed a longer cut in order to stand a chance at achieving greatness, its non-traditional focus, carefully utilized performances, and attention to detail make it one of the best of its kind in years, and yes, a cautiously optimistic chance at redemption for Depp. It isn’t the best possible film that could have been made from Bulger’s story, but Black Mass explores enough dark corners to separate itself from traditional biopics and crime dramas.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures