Retrospective Review: BLACK MASS

James 'Whitey' Bulger mugshot in 2011. (Photo courtesy Bureau of Prisons/Getty Images)

Welcome to Retrospective Review. A series in which we review older movies in an attempt to give them new life.

Earlier today, Whitey Bulger was transferred to the United States Penitentiary in West Virginia. Less than 24 hours later, he was dead. This is not a review of the man, but the movie based on the man. Does it feel inappropriate to review a movie about a man on the same day he died? Sort of. But he was a murderer, so let’s do this.

Black Mass was a 2015 film based on the novel of the same name by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. It tells the incredible true story of Whitey Bulger, an Irish Mob Kingpin and the most violent criminal in Boston, a town already pretty well known for its violence and criminals.

BLACK MASS: The Story of Whitey Bulger

THE STORY

What we have here is a rise and fall story as Bulger uses his connections with his brother, a senator, and an FBI agent, to take down the Italian mafia in Boston, an attempt that turned into a bloodbath, putting Bulger on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and cementing his legacy as a mob lord and FBI informant.

If you’re looking at that plot description, you’d probably think this is going to be a bloody, horrifying true story, wracked with conflict and dripping with tension.

The problem is, you’re only sort of right.

See, while this is mostly a film about Bulger, it spends just as much time on the Law Enforcement who tried to hunt him down with frustrating inefficiency. Of course, it is well known that Bulger was leaking information to the FBI and was protected in turn. His efforts were so well hidden, that even the FBI wasn’t entirely in the know about their own actions. Whitey’s ability to game the system by penetrating the bureaucracy could be handled with an almost comedic touch. Here’s a guy who seems to be cornered and every time he manages to slip through their fingers because they don’t even know that they’re protecting him. But instead, the film’s second act meanders as Bulger gains power.

What the film is missing is a clear and eager antagonist, a polar opposite. And while the great Corey Stoll shows up towards the end of the story to ask what the heck is going on at the FBI, it’s too little too late. We, as an audience, never feel the noose tighten, and when Bulger is captured in the end, our response is an “oh, so that’s how it happened” rather than jumping out of our chairs in horror, pumping our fists in excitement, or burying our face in our hands in dread. You know? A visceral reaction?

The Good

Cinematographer, Masanobu Takayanagi, shoots this movie with tremendous grit. He has an uncanny ability to bring out the grime of a city in films like Warrior, Silver Linings Playbook, and Spotlight, and here he turns Boston from a place I don’t really want to visit, to a place I don’t even want to look at.

You feel every sticky footstep, every cold night breeze, and you smell every cigarette that has soaked into the wallpaper.

The film also boasts one of the most outstanding casts ever assembled. Joel Edgerton stars as John Connolly, an FBI agent working with Bulger. He brings a conflicted, good guy personae that the movie doesn’t take full advantage of. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Whitey’s brother, Sen. Billy Bulger, proving that he can at least attempt every accent.

The film also stars Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Peter Skarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Adam Scott, and David Harbour, all of whom are very good and all of whom are underutilized.

But the real star of this movie is Johnny Depp.

Depp

Johnny Depp’s personal life has been extremely controversial of late, which is a shame because he was for a long time, one of my favorite actors. It is hard to argue that he was given too much money and too much power and has stopped trying the way he used to.

There was a period of time in which Johnny Depp was one of the most unique performers in the business. Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Benny & Joon, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Dead Man, Donnie Brasco, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Sleepy Hollow, Chocolat, Blow, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Secret Window, Finding Neverland, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, Public Enemies, Rango, and of course, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl show an actor who is willing to throw himself into any role.

If Depp was involved, you knew you were going to get an intense, charismatic performance that no one else could give. Depp was an actor who made choices, and some of them, like Pirates of the Caribbean, turned out to be billion dollar choices that brought him fame, fortune, SAG awards, multiple Oscar nominations, and critical and public adulation.

But that time seems to have passed.

To many, Depp has become a parody of himself, accepting any role that can pay him millions and let him goof around (I’m looking at you, Tusk, Yoga Hosers, Mortdecai, Into the Woods, Sherlock Gnomes, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Jesus, Johnny, what are you doing to me?!)  In some respects, Black Mass represents the last hurrah for Johnny Depp. Well, that and Murder on the Orient Express, two films in which he plays a gangster with a deep accent.

Johnny Depp is fantastic in Black Mass. And I mean, fantastic. There is a scene around a dinner table that sends chills down my spine. He absolutely dominates every scene he’s in, playing a side that we have not seen in any of his movies prior, a cold, raw, intelligent side. The first time Depp played Captain Jack Sparrow, there was a danger to the performance. You wanted to get to know Sparrow but you had to remember that he was a dangerous man, not to be crossed. Take that and remove the joy. Bulger is a man you wouldn’t want to be left in a room with. His sunken, steely blue eyes and rapidly receding hairline make him look more rattlesnake than man, and you can feel that tension in every frame. His raspy voice and cackling laugh make him a magnetic presence, and it’s a treat to watch Depp take on more serious subject matter. He’s been trying to make us laugh for almost a decade, and it is a treat to watch him frighten the audience.

But…

While Johnny Depp is terrific in the film, he’s still Johnny Depp; an actor who refused to trade in on his good looks post-21 Jump Street and instead preferred to bury himself under makeup intended to disguise his face. Johnny Depp. Does. Not. Play. Normal. People. And at this stage in his career, I don’t think he can. Even when he tried to play a semi-normal computer genius in Transcendence, it comes off as artificial. Here, he shines. He is simply on a different level than any other cast member in the film. That’s because they are all tethered to reality. Put it a different way? Johnny Depp is in a different move from the rest of the cast.

And I’d rather watch that movie.

Depp, covered in makeup by Ben Bornstein, looks like a gangster out of a Dick Tracy comic. He’s also wildly unnerving. Meanwhile, everyone else plays their part like they are normal people in a normal gangster movie. Or should I say, one specific gangster movie.

The Shadow That Looms Large

Goodfellas ruined the gangster movie.

Don’t get me wrong, Goodfellas is a great movie. But like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it looms so large in its genre that every film that follows either can’t help but be compared to it, or actively tries to imitate it. American Hustle, I, Tonya, Blow, Casino, Donnie Brasco, and The Sopranos all kneel at the altar that is Goodfellas. And you can throw Black Mass right on the pile.

What this movie desperately needs is to restructure the story around Bulger and to turn this genre on its head. This movie takes the Goodfellas playbook and plays it note for note but its crying out for someone to take a different genre and give it a gangster coat of paint.

Last Word On Black Mass

Bulger’s story is interesting and certainly compelling but the movie can’t decide if he’s a genius or just resourceful. Is the FBI clueless or mired in bureaucracy? The page one rewrite is painfully clear. This should be a movie about a man who is smart, though not as smart as he thinks he is and gets out of ALCATRAZ with a plan to take over Boston by pitting the mob against the FBI, but when things go south, he turns into an informant, ultimately assisting in the takedown of his own empire, though not before committing a few brutal, horrific murders.

And everyone from the top down, should like Depp. A vampire from a Hammer Horror Film who has found his way into a Scorsese crime drama.

Tell me you don’t want to see that!

Unfortunately, this is what we got. A perfectly good film but an all too familiar one.

If you’re looking for a really great gangster picture about Whitey Bulger, go watch The Departed.

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