Are gangster movies a tired exercise at this point? We all remember the pinnacles of this genre from the last 25 years (Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, The Departed, Miller’s Crossing to name a few) that have done a wonderful job of blocking out the dearth of bad movies they inspired. What those movies also did was provide a template – a tried and true rise and fall of the empire. We all know the beats and understand the tropes. That’s not a comment on their quality but of their familiarity. How do you separate from the pack when the outcome feels preordained?
In Scott Cooper’s Black Mass his attempt to stand out is in the casting. His new film is littered with the top talent of the day – from Benedict Cumberbatch to Joel Edgerton to the ethereal Johnny Depp. Cooper clearly knows we’ve seen this all before and his attempt to litter the film with legitimacy is beyond admirable. Unfortunately Cooper can’t escape the inevitable feeling that we’ve seen this all before.
Black Mass is the story of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) and his winter hill gang from South Boston. When the film begins Bulger is a small time crook just released from a decade long stint on Alcatraz. He and his boys have their fingers in a bit of everything from racketeering to sports betting to drug running. Bulger is such a classic movie gangster he even has his boys help an old lady in the neighborhood put away her groceries.
The problem for Bulger is turf and the war upon it. The Italian mob has a strangle hold on the north end and are encroaching on his territory. They have power and influence that ranges much farther than the recently released Bulger. Needless to say the war is escalating leaving Southie a war zone in the late 70’s. Dead bodies are piling up and the FBI can’t sit idly by while the death toll rises. Enter agent and Southie native John Connolly (Edgerton.) Connolly has just been assigned his hometown dream job – clean up the streets and anoint himself the savior of the south end.
Connolly’s plan? To form an unholy alliance with Boston’s most notorious native son to help him bring down the Italians. See, Connolly grew up with Jimmy’s younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is now a the President of the Massachusetts Senate. Connolly approaches Billy with a favor to ask – mind hooking up the FBI with his brother, just for a meet and greet? Billy does his best to turn a blind eye to his brothers business but can’t help but think Connolly could help him. Soon after, Connolly and Jimmy are working together…kind of.
You see, when you form an alliance with a psychopathic gangster like Jimmy Bulger things don’t always go as planned. First of all when you tell a psycho that in exchange for information on the Italians they can do whatever they want – what exactly do you think they are going to do? When you also tell said psycho that the only stipulation to running rough shot over Southie is no murdering – are you ok with him blatantly ignoring that?
What follows is a truly upsetting tale of political and departmental corruption leading to the meteoric rise of one of the most powerful crime lords of the modern era. Cooper uses a classic framing device by utilizing police interrogations of Bulger’s crew to set up his many crimes. He also uses the streets of Southie to create a claustrophobic environment – almost as if Bulger could be everywhere at all times.
And Bulger, as played by Depp, is an all-encompassing menace. He has the charisma of Hannibal Lecter and the psychotic episodes of Jack Torrance in The Shining. As a return to form – Depp envelopes Bulger. He’s almost reptilian in appearance with his pasty skin, receding hairline and piercing blue eyes. I’ve always contended that if you give Depp a wig or a top hat the man will dazzle. As himself he can be rather boring on screen. As Bulger, he flourishes.
The rest of Cooper’s cast is equally as game with many British actors employing some seriously convincing Boston accents. Edgerton as the upstart Agent Connolly is the film’s emotional core and he does a magnificent job sinking deeper into Bulger’s world. Cumberbatch as the younger Bulger is also game – turning the other cheek as his big brother absorbs more and more of the underworld. Even Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll show up as FBI agents with more than a little suspicion that Whitey might not be on the up and up.
Alas, despite all of these fantastic performances and directorial flourishes Black Mass still left me cold. Maybe it’s the lack of one single compelling female character. Maybe it’s the familiar nature of the material. Maybe it’s the characterization of Jimmy himself. Despite Depp’s unsettling performance his Bulger is pure evil. A film built around a character this unsympathetic is a grim exercise. Mass does not hold back on the nature of his enterprise either, presenting a vision of Boston that even horror movie directors would avoid.
In many ways Black Mass reminded me of a recent Brad Pitt anti-capitalist gangster vehicle Killing Them Softly. Both films have all the pieces in place for a gangster classic but never live up to their lofty aspirations.