- Movie Rating -

Black Mass (2015)

| September 22, 2015 | 0 Comments

The most refreshing thing about Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, the new biopic of the rise and fall of South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger is that for once we get an unromantic view of a psychopath. As much as I love fine films like Silence of the Lambs and Psycho, I must admit that both films ask us to find some measure of admiration with their subjects. That’s not the case here. In Bulger, we are in the presence of a human animal, an otherwise reasonable man who sends men and woman to their deaths almost as a part of his daily routine. The real mystery, of course, is how he was able to operate as gangster and terrorist for so long without, at the very least, being sent up the river.

And yet, that’s not really the film’s trajectory, merely the template. Scott Cooper’s film is tricky in that when it’s all over we aren’t asked to sympathize or admire Bulger, we are given a portrait of the wrecked lives that he has left in his wake. It’s about a psychopathic gangster, yes, but it’s much more about how his friends, his employees, the FBI, and his immediate family fell under his spell and paid the price. We feel for these people even though we understand that, simply by associating with a cunning gangster, they are the authors of their own broken destiny.

Bulger ruled the underworld of South Boston with his Winter Hill Gang for several decades after a nine year stretch at Alcatraz. Played in a brilliant performance by Johnny Depp, the movie isn’t about his rise to power, but about how he bent and manipulated the powers that be in order to stay in power. He became the most infamous criminal in Boston’s history and ran his operation throughout the 70s and 80 using his talent for manipulation and his willingness to murder anyone for the smallest of reasons.

In 1981 Bulger struck a deal with the FBI to be an informant, but by being an informant he quietly turned the bureau into his own private army and took down the Italian mob on the north side. It didn’t hurt that his FBI contact was a childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). The thrill of the relationship between Bulger and Connolly is that Bulger is smarter and quicker, while Connolly is a weak-willed and loyal to a fault.  He was an otherwise good man who becomes corrupted by his association with Whitey, in spite of warnings from his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) and just about everyone else.

The general outlines of the film are painfully familiar. What makes it special is that director Scott Cooper refuses to glorify or glamorize this story or these people. He knows that Bulger is scum, and he never makes the mistake of romanticizing his acts of violence. Bulger responds to stupidity and acts of disloyalty with the barrel of a gun. A lot of people are shot dead in this movie. Bullets enter the body. There’s blood. There’s pain. There’s death. There is nothing romantic here. The violence is sudden and frightening. Bulger is nothing short of a menace. In his track suits, his Foster Grey glasses (that make his face look like a skull) and his dead tooth that signals the rot from within, he comes off as a cold and vicious figure who buried so many bodies in one place that it became known as “Bulger Hill.”  He has a cold, dead stare and a way of turning and twisting words to turn innocent conversation into a threat. There are so many scenes in the movie when people are shot dead and the violence is sudden, bloody and shocking. Cooper doesn’t use any camera tricks or slow-motion. We see the violence as it happens.

The movie’s success rests on the shoulders of Johnny Depp. When it was announced that a major studio was making a bio-pic about “Whitey” Bulger with Depp in the lead I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy. Depp has been at the helm of so many bad movies lately that I had forgotten what a talent he really is. Like Peter Sellers, Lon Chaney, Alec Guinness and Eddie Murphy, Depp joins the short list of actors who can disappear behind heavy make-up. With thinning white hair, a palled complexion, a dead stare and an accent as thick as Boston Clam Chowder, he portrays Bulger as a cold, heartless monster or the devil in disguise. Bulger can make anyone do anything. There’s a scary scene late in the film when he questions an FBI man about his grilled stake. The man claims it is a family secret. Bulger insists. The man relents. Then Bulger questions why he would reveal a family secret so easily. The silence that follows is as thick as pea soup.

Scenes like that set Black Mass apart. We in the audience know what a demonic influence Bulger has, but we understand how the people in the movie could be fooled. I wondered where the movie was taking me. As I say, for a long time you aren’t sure that this is going to show you anything new. But then came the film’s ending, and I began to really understand its underlying message. As all biopics must, we are treated to onscreen text that tells us what happened to all the various players in and around Bulger’s reign of terror: his muscle men, his ex-wife, the FBI agents who got caught up in his web. Even his successful brother Billy who served on the Massachusettes Senate. What occurred to me as these people’s fates were unveiled was the deep and painful legacy of Bulger’s crimes. None of these people were blameless, of course, but all might have done better to stay way. I’m usually bored by “what happened” texts, but understanding the unholy path that Bulger had laid for these otherwise decent people made me feel a lot of sadness for the wrecked lives left behind.

The film’s only weak link is that it often seems too stuffed with characters. There are many players in this story and many of whom never seem to get more than one-dimension. That wouldn’t be so unusual except that we get the feeling that their stories exist in some longer cut of the film. At 2 hours, the film does feel a little short, and the movie abruptly skips over what Bulger was doing during the 16 years that he was on the lam (he and his wife were raising pit bulls). But what you take away from this film is that great performance by Johnny Depp who disappears so fully into this character that I wouldn’t be surprised if a second Oscar nomination didn’t come his way next spring. Even when the movie isn’t at its best, Depp is always at the top of his game. In a somewhat flawed but never-the-less entertaining gangster movie, he stands out and gives us a performance of pure evil that lingers in our minds.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2015) View IMDB Filed in: Drama, Thriller