Movie Review: Black Mass (2015)
Here’s my theory about James J. “Whitey” Bulger.
Everyone agrees he was a ruthless South Boston gangster responsible for a dozen murders, probably more. He was involved in drugs, extortion, the IRA. But was he an FBI informant? Or did he use the FBI to further his career? Did he feed the feds information to take down his enemies while he was allowed to operate with federal cover?
That’s not my theory, by the way. Most of that is fairly well-established.
Here’s my theory. I think someone got to director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), and maybe screenwriters Jez Butterworth (“Fair Game,” “Get On Up”) and Mark Mallouk (first timer). Someone got to them and said, “Yeah, great cast. Great story. But you know what? This picture’s gonna lie there like a dead fish. Get it? No one’s gonna come out of this thing saying, ‘Hey, great fuckin’ movie.’ None of that. They’re gonna piss all over it. And it’s gonna die. And no one’s gonna see it no more. It’s gonna disa-fucking-pear. You understand? If anyone anywhere likes this fucking picture, someone’s gonna get fucking hurt.”
That’s my theory. It’s the only explanation I could come up with for why “Black Mass,” which should be a fascinating gangster flick, is so hopelessly inert.
Aping Homer, Goodfellas
In the documentary, “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” the tension is the above: was Bulger an FBI informant, and if so, was the FBI being played?
The tension in “Black Mass” is ... I’m not sure. That’s the problem. It’s just one thing after another.
Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a local Irish mob guy in South Boston. He’s served 10 years in Alcatraz. He’s got his crew, he’s nice to the old ladies in the neighborhood, and he plays gin rummy with his mother and loses. Maybe on purpose. At the dinner table, he gives Homer Simpson-esque advice to his kid about fights at school. The problem isn’t fighting, it’s where you do it. “If nobody sees it,” he says, moving his hands like a magician, “it didn’t happen.”
Then FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), also from Southie, who looks up to Whitey and his brother Billy, a state senator (Benedict Cumberbatch), suggests that Whitey—or Jimmy, as everyone calls him—turn informant. No go. Then Bulger’s son dies and we’re told he gets meaner. Then he takes the FBI gig. Because? Then his mom dies and we’re told he gets meaner. But he never seemed not mean. A guy almost starts a fight with him in a bar. Dead. A sweet, ditzy girl maybe says a little too much to the cops without realizing it. Dead. Two guys, no, three, get in the way of his Jai alai empire in Florida. Dead dead dead. Meanwhile, Connolly keeps covering for him.
I could never figure out Connolly. Was he protecting Bulger for Bulger or was he protecting his asset, which he felt was furthering his career? At what point did he get in too deep? At what point was he more interested in protecting Bulger than himself? Initially he seems kind of smart, or at least street smart, but by the end he’s the dumbest guy on screen.
Ditto John Morris (David Harbour). Initially he seems thoughtful, weighing consequences, making a deal with the lesser evil to get the greater one (the mafia). Then he’s buying Connolly’s ridiculous excuses that protect Bulger. Then he’s actually at Connolly’s for a barbecue with Bulger. Then he’s being threatened by Bulger. No wait, he’s just getting his balls busted—in a scene that so wants to be the “Am I a clown to you?” scene from “Goodfellas,” but isn’t. After that, Bulger threatens Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) in a creepy psychosexual scene that furthers nothing.
The longer the movie, in fact, the more incomprehensible Bulger becomes. Bulger gets away from the feds, but he gets away from the filmmakers even more.
It’s not all bad. I liked Corey Stoll as the no-nonsense prosecutor Fred Wyshak, Peter Sarsgaard as the sweaty hitman/addict Brian Halloran, and—in particular—Juno Temple as the heartbreakingly forthright prostitute who lets too much slip. They’re all small roles. Depp? He’s serviceable but one-note. And the Husky eyes are distracting.
The film has no point of view. Initially, the conceit is flashback confessions from Bulger’s men, but this is abandoned for Cooper’s “this, then that” approach. Could you have made it a legal procedural from Wyshak’s perspective? Or a journalistic procedural from The Boston Globe’s? Channel it all through Bulger? Or Connolly? Or Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott), an FBI agent who, in the doc, questioned everything and got canned, but here is mostly a background figure?
Cooper doesn’t do any of that. Instead he made a gangster movie that just lies there. “Black Mass” sleeps with the fishes.