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Black Mass (2015)

Our Robber Us

What better way to kick off Oscar season than with some fresh, glistening bait? Scott Cooper’s true-crime biopic Black Mass is destined to rack up nods, with its big-budget/low-rent-feel scenery and A-list actors eager to chew right through it. Screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth would have us believe that their adaptation of Boston Globe journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book is rooted in history. That’s true, to a point, but whatever distinct personality Black Mass has gets buried in the Greatest Hits of popular gangster pictures, from The Godfather to Goodfellas to The Departed (and, by extension, Infernal Affairs).

The only reason anyone is talking about this movie, really, is Johnny Depp. He plays Boston crime boss Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger as a meta-human sociopath, a pale-eyed snake whose frail tolerance for humanity is as mysterious as his distractingly stained front tooth. Depp wraps his arms around Cooper’s movie and drains every bit of attention from it, just as Bulger squeezed the life out of whores and informants. It’s a commanding performance that might have been legendary if it didn’t feel calculated to buoy an otherwise unremarkable picture--or if Depp hadn't spent the last decade-plus hamming it up in pirate makeup and helping us forget what once made him an interesting actor.

Let’s back up. In 1975, newly minted FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) recruits fellow Irishman and childhood acquaintance Jimmy Bulger to help him rid South Boston of its Italian mob problem. Jimmy sees this as a way to eliminate competition in his petty drug-dealing and vending-machine-skimming operations and expand into other markets. He soon finds himself ascendant in the underworld, as Connolly plummets into a moral morass of covering tracks, forging documents, and abetting murder.

It’s strange, but Black Mass reminds me of another movie I reviewed this week, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The obvious connection is that Edgerton appears in both. Beyond that, the films are bloated throwbacks to better versions of themselves. Cooper’s film includes a galaxy of street hustlers, killers, and FBI agents, most of whom get just enough screen time to trick us into thinking they figure more heavily into the story than they actually do. 

This works at first, as Jesse Plemons’ young thug character opens up to the Feds in a flash-forward interrogation scene. Maybe, Cooper teases, we’ll see Bulger through his eyes. We do, for a bit. Then the questioning switches to Bulger’s confidante, Steve (Rory Cochrane) and then to the Winter Hill Gang’s chief executioner, John (W. Earl Brown). There’s even an interrogation scene in the 70s, featuring Peter Sarsgaard’s loose-cannon drug dealer, Brian.* Black Mass is so lousy with like-flavored non-starter narratives that they begin to feel like commercial breaks in a re-run.

There are bright spots. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Jimmy's younger brother, Billy, a state senator who protects his sibling by not inquiring too much about his day job. Their occasional dinners with Mom Bulger (Mary Klug) are an awkward-moments TV show waiting to happen. Also superb are Dakota Johnson (yes, the same Dakota Johnson from 50 Shades of Grey) and Julianne Nicholson, who get short shrift in terms of screen time, but whose fiery, wounded turns as Bulger and Connolly's beleaguered wives become unexpected beacons in a dense, dark sea of melodrama.

On that note, I'd like to pose a legitimate question to my reader(s). Pardon my ignorance, but is the Boston "thing" really a thing? Are all Boston men obnoxious, macho, foul-mouthed racists who value family above all else, but who are not above threatening to slug "da wife" if she gets lippy? If I were an alien whose only knowledge of mankind came strictly from watching movies set in Boston, I'm pretty sure I would have put in a demolition order for Earth by now. From The Departed to The Fighter to The Town to Black Mass, I have yet to see a dramatic representation of the Boston male that is not also an unbelievable cartoon character.

Which brings me back to Depp. It is perhaps unfair of me to rain on his parade, but I couldn't buy his Jimmy Bulger as anything more than a really cool production achievement. With his balding, majestically aerodynamic head; perpetually black-clad, wiry frame; plaster skin; and over-sized tinted sunglasses, Depp looks like the undead offspring of Hunter S. Thompson and the housecoat version of Gary Oldman's Dracula.** As if to drive a nail in the visual coffin of Bulger's inhumanity, Cooper treats us to a shot of Depp resting with his hands folded across his chest.

It's a fine performance, but a painstakingly curated one--which, by definition, eschews realism in favor of exaggeration. Jimmy Bulger is the kind of real-world monster that is hard to fathom walking among us. Depp, with his soul-grabbing stare and gnashing outbursts of violence, doesn't sell the idea of Bulger as someone who could have walked among us (not in the daylight, anyway).

The director and screenwriters don't do themselves any favors by surrounding this unique performance with well-worn artifice from other crime epics. We get the sidelined housewife, the renegade cop confronting his doubtful superiors, the cop on the edge, the crime-scene close-ups of the body in the trunk, the climactic "cleaning house" scene inter-cut with a solemn anti-hero in church. Did you ever notice that McDonald's sausage patties taste the same as their hamburger patties? Ignore the clock and the bread they're served on, and one might as well be the other. Same rules apply to Black Mass. Swap out Depp for, say, William Petersen, and you're left with a CSI: Southie pilot that doesn't make it to series.

Believe it or not, I don't think Black Mass is a bad film. I'll never watch it again, but I may remember parts of it fondly. Depending on where Depp's career goes from here, I might even place it in the Weeping Potential pantheon, right next to Eddie Murphy's performance in Bowfinger. You may recall that after years of squandering his considerable gifts in fat-check/low-impact family fare, Murphy broke out with a truly revelatory turn, alongside the similarly afflicted Steve Martin. It was cause for celebration, we thought. "Murphy's back!" we thought. By the time The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Norbit slunk out of theatres, we'd collectively forgotten about Bowfinger.

It would be nice to think of Depp's turn in Black Mass as a fresh start, but I just read a tidbit online about Pirates of the Caribbean 5.

*Brian gets a truly Scorsese-worthy introduction, perhaps the best use of ten seconds I’ve seen all year.

**Speaking of Thompson, Black Mass hints at Jimmy Bulger's involvement with an experimental prison program in which he was dosed with fifty hits of LSD during his nine-year stint. Can I watch that movie?