Scott Cooper's Black Mass is working on terrific material: the rise and fall of one James "Whitey" Bulger, who terrorized Boston in the Eighties and early Nineties. As played by Johnny Depp in thick makeup Whitey is a ghoul, a walking dead with lifeless fish eyes, a rotted tooth, a freckled sharkskin forehead that stretches almost to the back of his skull. He whispers in his most gravelly Don Corrado Prizzi voice, glowers his most intense Michael Corleone glare and we can believe he's the head of a gang: only a mob boss can look like that and not get laughed off the street for trying too hard.
The script (by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) is based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob and far as I can tell for the most part it's accurate, down to Whitey actually winning a lottery ticket (well, he might have talked the man--who bought the ticket in a Bulger-owned store--into splitting the winnings). Accuracy seems beside the point tho; the movie is dimly lit and dimly dramatized; it seems to mistaken solemnity and a deliberate pace for a sense of gravitas and can barely build up momentum, much less interest.
About the only time you can feel any tension is when Whitey is approaching one of his intended victims, talking them up, trying either to put them at ease or upset their complacency. You pretty much know the poor schmuck going to get it--the only unsettled question, the only element generating suspense is just when and how (at one point it's a young girl, an unarmed civilian, and to the questions already running through your head you can add "Do you have to do your schtick for someone who can't really fight back?").
Perhaps another element of interest is the question of FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly believes Whitey is his ticket to the big time, and Whitey feels similarly; one of them is correct. Connolly's stance as he attempts to keep his balance over insidiously shifting ground is one of the more interesting subplots of the film, and at one point gives rise to one of its most chilling moments, when Whitey menaces Connolly's wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) in their bedroom.
Doesn't seem enough, though; either we don't see enough of Connolly's crisis of soul (most of the movie is devoted to Connolly massaging evidence to keep Whitey out of trouble, and to Whitey's increasingly intimate proximity to Connolly) or Edgerton hasn't been given enough to really dive into his role. The subplot could have been the film's secret heart (we keep the focus on Whitey of course for box-office purposes) but this heart's pulse seems inexplicably weak.
Same for the other most interesting character in the picture, Whitey's brother Billy. Billy's a straight arrow senator, though actor Benedict Cumberbatch does his level best to suggest ambiguity through Billy's oddly couched phrases and slightly hooded eyes. There's only so much you can do with gestures and vocal inflections before the paucity of the material becomes embarrassingly transparent.
Interesting assertion by RogerEbert.com film critic Matt Zoller Seitz: that we're meant to see Whitey from the outside, from several different perspectives, hence the kabuki makeup (representing his demonic appearance to others) and relative lack of insight into his character. Good argument, only I've seen it done before, and in my book better: in Francesco Rosi's 1962 Mafia film Salvatore Giuliano, where the bandit is seen through the testimony of several witnesses. The eponymous character himself doesn't really appear onscreen: at film's start we see his dead body sprawled on the ground (face down), we sometimes see him at frame's edge, we occasionally hear snatches of his voice. The man's absence amplifies his legendary status (as if he's already receding into history), points up his ambiguous nature (man of the people or yet another power-crazy bandit?), emphasizes the unholy alliance between the Mafia, Giuliano's own people, and the government. A lot like Whitey's story, actually, only more complexly and interestingly told.
I'll say this much for Cooper's movie; it helped sharpen my appreciation for an earlier attempt at depicting Whitey on the big screen, Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006). Criticized for being a Hollywood remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs (2002), the film turns out to be a profanely funny look at treason: how trust is a precious commodity not to be wasted (impossible to regain, once lost); how one is drawn to the family/group one is deceiving, blurring demarcation lines; how loyalty has its own little rules and corollaries that can leave you facing backwards, standing on your head, or worse--all done in Scorsese's blood-thriller style, to an always eclectic soundtrack stuffed with rock, Irish folk tunes, opera.
Lost in all this is yet another idea: that war is a game of virile men of breeding age sent out by impotent old farts (the scene in the theater with the dildo gave the game away) to fight and perhaps die for them, the winner being the tribe with the most breeders left standing, the most women impregnated. I know folks who fume when citing the film's final shot, of a large rodent crossing the window frame--the film is about 'rats' after all--but see a subtler meaning: that rodents, having an even better chance than we do of surviving nuclear ecological, geological or biological apocalypses, are the likeliest winners in this deadly earnest round of natural selection.
First published in Businessworld, 10.23.15