[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. Black Mass opens today.]
The true story surrounding notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and his relationship to the FBI is so sensational that it had to be a movie, but director Scott Cooper fails to provide a compelling angle on this stranger-than-fiction crime drama in his adaptation, Black Mass. Instead, Cooper is content to rely almost entirely on Johnny Depp’s charismatic-yet-one-dimensional take on Bulger, which is a shame since the film has a far more interesting character in FBI Special Agent John Connolly, who actually has an arc as opposed to being an outright sociopath from start to finish. Unfortunately, focusing on Connolly still isn’t enough to provide the movie with any definition or reason to exist other than to remind us that Bulger was a monstrous mobster.
In 1975, South Boston criminal and Winter Hill Gang leader James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) is courted to become an informant by his childhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an ambitious FBI special agent looking to take down the mafia in North Boston. Connolly sees their partnership as an alliance—Bulger gets rid of competition, and Connolly cleans up Boston (or at least cleans out the criminals who aren’t affiliated with Bulger). However, Bulger gets the much better end of the deal and he grows from hoodlum to kingpin with the FBI—specifically Connolly—running interference.
Even though the story spans two decades, there’s not much more to the film than that. The protagonist should be Connolly, and with a more polished script, we could have truly delved into a misguided man who made a deal with the devil. Cooper does go in a somewhat interesting direction by showing that Connolly practically idolizes Bulger, but he doesn’t go in depth with that conflict. And although Edgerton gives a solid performance, he portrays Connolly mostly as a slimeball rather than someone who wrestled with the cost of getting into bed with someone like Bulger. That’s too bad because we could have seen a rich, unique character who believes it’s better to work with the devil he knows even if it damns the entire city.
Sadly, Cooper doesn’t devote enough of his story to Connolly, and instead fixates on Bulger but with no specific aim or intent. The Bulger we meet at the beginning of the film is as despicable as the one we see at the end. The monster entrances Cooper, but the character is as cartoonish as any makeup drenched character from Depp’s recent filmography. Hiding behind contact lenses, fake teeth, and a bald cap, Depp relishes playing Bulger, but there’s hardly any nuance to the character even though he’s a captivating figure. Scenes with Bulger’s common-law wife Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson) could have been left on the cutting room floor because all they show was the Bulger was occasionally nice to people he liked.
Cooper also skirts up against finding depth in the Bulger’s relationship with his lieutenants Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown), and Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), who provide the film’s framing device by informing on Bulger. But the movie rarely gets into why these three men would betray Bulger after twenty years of loyalty. One scene makes the case for Flemmi, but there’s definitely nothing to show why Weeks or Martorano would turn “rat”.
Perhaps if Cooper had explored the notion of loyalty and betrayal more deeply, this framing device would have more weight, but frequently, Black Mass is always chasing after the shiny object. If Depp wants to give a scenery-chewing performance, the director if more than happy to give his star the floor even if the scenes add nothing to the story or any semblance of a larger theme. Casting Benedict Cumberbatch as James’ brother, State Senator Billy Bulger, is almost a distraction since the movie fails to do anything novel with the character. It’s like Cooper couldn’t resist including the reality that Boston’s biggest criminal and one of its most powerful political figures were siblings. But it’s irrelevant in the course of a film if it’s not used for any larger purpose.
And Black Mass has no purpose other than being based on remarkable true events. Unfortunately, now following Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, Cooper has shown himself to be a filmmaker who is enamored of ideas, but fumbles badly in the execution despite getting strong performances from his cast. Crazy Heart boils down to an AA ad and Out of the Furnace is a mumbled half-nothing about the struggles of the working class. Black Mass only illustrates the life of Whitey Bulger, turning what could have been a powerful crime film into a dour and exquisite docudrama.