ANY GOOD GANGSTER FLICK dares, if not exhorts, the audience to find something to admire in its subjects.
The characters may be charismatic, larger-than-life figures, or working-class overachievers who defy the disadvantages of their birth to accumulate staggering wealth and rise to positions of power they could never come to occupy through legal means. Or they’re Robin Hood types: class-war heroes who steal from the rich and powerful so they can fill the pockets of those in their communities (or at least appear to.) But while Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, about the Irish-American crime lord Whitey Bulger, is at times absorbing, it doesn’t quite convince anyone to care about its villainous protagonist.
In south Boston in the 1970s and 1980s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, gathers power, courtesy of an unholy alliance with the FBI and the political disregard of his brother, the Massachusetts State Senator Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), with whom the Bulger boys grew up, has given Whitey virtual immunity from prosecution in return for “intel” on the Italian mafia operating in the northern part of the city, a deal which permits him to operate unencumbered by the forces of the law. This, Whitey claims, does not mean he is an informant–“there’s informing and there’s informing,” he tells an associate–but what it does mean is that the bonds forged on the unforgiving streets of south Boston disregard obvious contradictions, such as those found in a triumvirate that includes a government agent, a politician and a trigger-happy gangster. It is these delicate relationships–in particular, the relationship between Whitey and Connolly–around which the film revolves. Intimacy, in fact, is a running theme. Closeness might suggest trust, but it also suggests danger–especially if you happen to be part of Whitey’s crew.
Of course, nothing is more befitting a gangster film than a tense exchange over a dinner table and Black Mass reworks Joe Pesci’s “Funny how?” scene from Goodfellas with some success. Black Mass borrows openly from other films in the genre and in this reuse of tried-and-tested tropes, scenes and settings–from The Godfather and The Departed among others–it at times becomes formulaic. But the principal failure of Black Mass is not that it is formulaic: it is that it takes no time at all either to develop Whitey’s inner world. It is frustrating that the writers do not even try to explain why Whitey is the way he is, and how it can be that two brothers can grow up to live such different lives. Consequently Whitey at times seems to be little more that a horror movie villain, an effect aggravated by Cooper’s tendency to luxuriate in the assorted stranglings and shootings conducted by the Winter Hill boys. Scant screen time is paid to creating the psychological complexity that makes gangsters such compelling characters, and for the better part of the film, Whitey does little except prowl around Southie with his thin hair combed back against his scalp and the collar of his leather jacket turned up against the wind. Interestingly, one of the best scenes of the film comes when Whitey dotes on his family in an early scene. Whitey, over dinner, marries the values of the gangster and the family man when he tells his young son, Douglas that “if nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”
Much of what you think of Black Mass will depend on what you make of its high priest, the blue-eyed, thin-lipped Johnny Depp, but the film really belongs to Joel Edgerton, who turns in a first-rate performance as a man in denial that there is any conflict between his work for the FBI and his friendship with Whitey Bulger.
There are absorbing moments of drama in Black Mass, but they’re sporadic, and the result is an unsatisfying and episodic depiction of an interesting story.