(SPOILERS) It’s telling that Black Mass has received more attention for Johnny Depp’s (latest) physical transformation than its actual content. Those peepers! That (lack of) hair! Scott Cooper translates the long-gestating (it has been suggested it took this amount of time to get the movie made because those involved were afraid of potential repercussions if they painted their then-fugitive protagonist in a less than flattering light), so-bizarre-it-must-be-true story of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger to the big screen, but does so with insistent lack of flair, edge or intensity. Bulger, the odd scene aside, ends up a passenger in his own vehicle, and as a result the cock-eyed activities of the FBI garner the lion’s share of the interest.
Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent John Connolly is in thrall to Whitey Bulger, hero worshipping the man who once showed him a kindness as a kid and offering a deal whereby he will protect the hoodlum if he helps bring down Italian crime family the Angiulo Brothers. That Bulger yields next to nothing (it appears Connolly lifts transcripts of other informants and edits them as Whitey’s words), and continually gets away with it is less baffling than the manner in which Connolly, an egoist and idiot fuelled by his own disproportionate sense of self-worth, flagrantly defends his co-Bostonite, defers blame, blusters and barracks, delivers informants to Bulger for summary execution, and then finds himself promoted for it. Particularly since Edgerton portrays Connolly as the kind of blundering oaf who wouldn’t look out of place in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!
But despite this tonally off-kilter approach (it wouldn’t have taken much, and it might possibly have been to the picture’s benefit, to push Black Mass all the way into the realm of black comedy; at least it would have been ingrained with a stronger sense of identity), the FBI inter-dealings are fascinating, with Connolly swaggering around, swearing at his bosses and making grandiose claims and gestures, while his colleague John Morris (David Harbour, who has established himself as one of the go-to supporting actors at the moment) is swept along, fretting over his own complicity. Kevin Bacon channels his best Alec Baldwin as increasingly incensed overseer Charles McGuire, who finds his hands tied due to the ongoing Italian mob prosecution. It isn’t until Corey Stoll’s no nonsense Fred Wyshak assumes oversight that Connolly’s little games starts to unravel.
And they’re little games that guarantee the ascendency of Bulger in place of those the FBI chooses to chase down. The peculiar thing here, although perhaps not so peculiar as both Cooper’s Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace had serious narrative shortcomings, is how little impact Bulger and his activities make. Depp is ostensibly delivering another freak show act, by way of a Jack Nicholson impression (appropriate, since Nicholson essentially played Bulger in The Departed), but despite the intensity of his contacts and generally bizarre demeanour, he’s mostly absent.
There’s one great, two-part scene where his character comes alive, and it isn’t too surprising that this should be courtesy of the FBI plotline. Bulger attends Connolly’s for dinner, along with Morris and right-hand man Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). He then proceeds to menace Morris across the kitchen table regarding his willingness to give away a secret family recipe. This comprised one of the early trailers for the movie, and sold me the picture as a riveting must-see.
Bulger follows up by threatening Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson, note perfect as ever), who loathes everything about him, in her bedroom. It’s the closest we get to a taste of just how crazy, disturbing and all-round psychotic Bulger is. Particularly as the picture has earlier made a great show of downplaying the aspects in favour of instructing us on how loving a father and beloved by the neighbourhood he is.
There are numerous accounts of Bulger’s capacity for violence, but they’re mostly absent from the picture. Cooper seems disinterested in making us flinch, which adds to the sense that the movie Bulger may be a bad man, but he isn’t that bad. The violence and menace are perfunctory, offhand and lacking in impact. The violence isn’t affecting; it carries no potency or power to disturb, either because Cooper doesn’t care to make it so or because he’s unable to. Nothing about Bulger has the resonance of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, say, and while that character may be an unreachable touchstone, it’s an easy one to fall into referencing; Black Mass is so undifferentiated from its genre mates, with its hardboiled voiceovers and time shifts, it can’t help invoke gangster classics while highlighting its inferiority to them.
And on that subject, as well-furrowed as the FBI side is, Bulger’s activities are so loosely documented as to be incoherent. When the IRA narrative arrives it’s the sort of cheesy thing we expect from lazy Oirish-American movies; we’ve had no inkling of Bulger’s deep connection with his homeland hitherto. There’s an offhandness generally that means little passes notice, be it his using his mother’s house as a slay ground or shooting crazy Brian Halloran (Peter Saarsgaard) in a car park.
The supporting cast is well-chosen and mostly very good, from Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons to Dakota Johnson as Whitey’s wife, to W Earl Brown as hit man John Martorano. Benedict Cumberbatch brings the baggage of being Benedict Cumberbatch to senator brother Billy Bulger (another so-crazy-it-must-be-true aspect of the story), and can’t overcome it even, or perhaps especially, when he’s making his mother scrambled eggs on toast.
One wonders what kind of problems Cooper encountered in the editing suite, since a probably fairly significant on-the-lam sequence has been excised (Sienna Miller doesn’t feature at all as Bulger’s girlfriend) and many of the whys and whats of Bulger’s hits are too oblique to really penetrate.
Both Jim Sheridan and Barry Levinson were attached to direct at the various points and, even with the latter’s rough time of late, I think both would have delivered something more effective than what we have here (Levinson made Bugsy, don’t forget). Like De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, Black Mass ends up as a missed opportunity, meaning the story is sure to be revisited sooner rather than later. Perhaps it will end up as the miniseries initially mooted when the Weinsteins were attached. As for its awards prospects, I can’t see Depp getting nominated, not for one scene. It’s about as likely as a nod for Mordecai.