Black Mass

September, 2015, Drama

James “Whitey” Bulger’s life as a major crime figure in Boston spanned nearly 3 decades, from the mid-1960’s until his abrupt disappearance in 1994. After more than a decade on the FBI’s 10-most wanted list, he was arrested in Santa Monica in 2011 at age 81. Convicted in 2013 of racketeering, extortion and complicity in 11 murders, he’s now serving a double life sentence in a federal prison. What made him such a successful criminal?

For starters, he enjoyed the protection of the F.B.I.; for many years he served as an informant on his criminal competitors, members of the Boston Mafia. In the course of this highly advantageous duplicity, he managed to corrupt John Connolly, the F.B.I. “handler” who was a childhood friend of Bulger’s as they were growing up in the Winter Hill section of south Boston. Bulger’s criminal longevity was also well served by the fact that during much of this period, his brother Billy was President of the Massachusetts Senate and subsequently forced to resign as President of The University of Massachusetts when he refused to divulge his brother’s whereabouts in a Congressional hearing.

Surely, these are the ingredients of a potentially great crime drama, a legitimate successor to films running from Scarface through The Untouchables to TheGodfather trilogy. Toss in highly acclaimed director Scott Cooper, an iconic leading man (Johnny Depp) and a supporting cast which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Joel Edgerton and you come up with…a disappointing result.

It’s not that there aren’t aspects of Mass which merit attention and even praise; sure-eyed cinematography that captures the grittiness of the storyline’s surroundings, individual scenes that hint at Bulger’s capacity for cunning violence and the repeated venality of federal and local law enforcement officers who knowingly turned a blind eye to Bulger’s crimes in order to publicize the convictions of other criminals with greater career enhancement potential for the Bureau. But the movie’s strengths aren’t enough; Depp’s screen persona makes it very difficult to justify his choice as Bulger, screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth confuse accuracy on the facts with insight into their characters and the tension which launches the film flat lines as the final reel traces Bulger’s off-hand arrest and conviction.

But it’s the failure of Black Mass to better chronicle the moral collapse of Connolly that ultimately drains the movie of the emotional impact it might have delivered. As the corruptible cop, Joel Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby) brings a credible Bostonian accent to his role, but nary a scrap of insight into how a man sworn to uphold the law allowed himself to become nursemaid to such a venal thug. Did he fall under the spell of a brilliantly manipulative Machiavelli? Depp’s Bulger is far too one-dimensional to provide hints into his hold over his own crew, much less adequately demonstrate how he succeeded in turning Connolly inside out morally. (Connolly is currently serving a 40-year sentence in jail for abetting Bulger’s crimes.) As for brother Billy, even the skills of Cumberbatch can’t get a proper toe-hold in a role with few moments of screen time and even fewer lines.

It’s hard to fault director Scott here; after all, he’s the man responsible for Crazy Heart, the winsome, nuanced story of an alcoholic country and western singer that garnered Jeff Bridges’ his Oscar 5 years ago. Scott followed that film two years ago with Out of the Furnace, a vastly under-rated examination of blue-collar violence that featured a superb performance by Christian Bale.

The reason Black Mass is less than the sum of its parts lies in a script that can’t make up its mind, constantly switching its focus from Bulger to Connolly and back again, turning this overlong, bizarre true-crime story into a much less than it might have been.

The Verdict? Solid craftsmanship, without genuine artistic achievement.

 

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