Part of me viewed Black Mass as a critic. I took into consideration the actors, the script, the staging, pacing, etc. What about character arcs? What about historical accuracy? You know: the usual. I considered some of the things that usually pop up on the imaginary checklist (like how many trailer-worthy zingers will we endure?) and a few that were more specific to this film (like will Johnny Depp’s makeup look as bad as it did in the set photos?); I considered that I’d have to play the game where you try to compress and bury all of those checklistable points so that you can actually watch the movie. I considered Out of the Furnace, the last film by Black Mass director Scott Cooper, and the frustrating way in which that film tried and nearly succeeded in being an epic like The Deer Hunter. Somehow, one of Furnace‘s major flaws seemed to be that it was only almost that kind of movie, something that attempted an ambitious feat but failed to stick the landing.
But despite a sneaking suspicion regarding that last point Black Mass is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than Out of the Furnace or even Crazy Heart, Cooper’s first two films which both touted incredible performances but misplaced directorial style, and that’s probably because the other part of me viewed it as a Bostonian. The Globe‘s Ty Burr says it best in his review: “For worse and for worser, James “Whitey” Bulger is a son of Boston, and moviegoers here will react differently to Scott Cooper’s film than they will in Seattle, Dallas, or Dubuque.” That was inescapably true for last night’s Boston Common screening, wherein the feeling was that everyone in the theater was already familiar with what was unfolding up on the screen.
In that respect Black Mass is a success: it’s faithful to the what happened with the Winter Hill Gang and the FBI from 1979 onwards. Cooper’s style isn’t as cold as Bennett Miller’s in Foxcatcher, but it’s close. This is a matter-of-fact account of a story that’s often hard to believe is founded entirely in truth, and Cooper has little interest in delving into anything deeper. On the one hand, that’s a good thing — Whitey isn’t humanized, nor is FBI Special Agent John Connelly, and in that the Boston audiences can breathe a sigh of relief at not being forced to celebrate those who inflicted serious pain on others down the block not so long ago. On the other hand, the near-total lack of moral grappling within any of these characters makes Black Mass fairly flat at times, especially where a more fictionalized version like The Departed is built entirely on moral quandaries. Cooper continues on his current path in delivering a solid piece of filmmaking with the actor at the forefront, but as a whole the film doesn’t excel to the heights it should.
The actor, though, is most certainly at the forefront. Aside from one or two questionable Boston accents, Black Mass is 2015’s ensemble acting clinic. There are a few ineluctable castings, like Kevin Bacon as FBI bigshot Charles McGuire and Jesse Plemons as the luckless Kevin Weeks; there are even a few questionable choices, like Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s politician brother Billy and the endlessly-distracting Adam Scott as Some Other FBI Guy. Mostly, though, there are brilliant turns from both major and minor players. Peter Sarsgaard and Rory Cochrane imbue the street toughs Halloran and Flemmi with different shades of vulnerability and end up finding greater depth in their characters than some of the top-billed actors (ahem, Cumberbatch) are able to find in their “more important” roles. Deadwood‘s W. Earl Brown, The Red Road‘s Julianne Nicholson and True Detective‘s Brad Carter all make the most out of bit parts, and it’s clear that pretty much everyone is relishing being a part of such a stellar cast.
It’s Joel Edgerton who steals Black Mass out from under everyone, Johnny Depp included. His John Connelly is the closest we come to any kind of moral struggle. There’s a mix of responsibility to his family, duty to his job as an FBI Special Agent, infatuation with Whitey, and loyalty to anyone who grew up in the same neighborhood he did. That last one is spun in an interesting way, as if Connelly just assumes through some kind of South Boston conditioning that you’re supposed to exhibit that kind of loyalty — when he tacks the platitude “loyalty is very important to me!” at the end of an argument with his wife, it’s obvious that she doesn’t know whether she should buy into that or not. Connelly himself isn’t exactly sure, either, and even though Cooper refuses to devote any of Black Mass to this kind of character development Edgerton picks up the slack with style. There’s just a higher degree of life in him, dancing around the FBI office as an unknowing mafioso incriminates himself on a hidden wire tap, and that life is a welcome jolt every time he’s on the screen. And having heard a great many horrendous Boston accents, Edgerton’s one-octave up croak is scarily believable.
And Johnny Depp?
Whitey Jimmy himself? How could a review of Black Mass hardly have mentioned him yet? In retrospect, Depp’s Whitey is less the driving force of Cooper’s Black Mass than one might expect him to be. Narratively, this is Connelly’s show; Whitey is the villain from start to finish, never revealing any kind of heart or complexity. Depp is spellbinding, sure, and the cartoonish quality of his appearance actually favors his status as someone who doesn’t need to display complexity in order to get his vicious way. That Globe review from Mr. Burr calls attention to the fact that this Whitey is simply “this movie’s bogeyman”, and that Black Mass overlooks the story potential in the fact of a single neighborhood able to create Whitey Bulger and Billy Bulger and John Connelly. While it’s as much a welcome relief that Depp’s villain never soliloquizes about this town as it is to see the Boston of Black Mass suitably unromanticized, Burr’s suggestion does raise that interesting possibility. Then again, as I sit not far from that Southie neighborhood and look across my own street, calling attention to that possibility might just hit too close to home.