From director Scott Cooper, who made the bucolic, bullet-fueled Out of the Furnace, Black Mass may indeed seem like just another biopic of a mobster, but it’s as much of an incremental breakdown of the social pecking order that tarred many an inner city during the mid-20th century with its juvenile sense of loyalty and rules of honor.
Now, I hate gangster films as a genre because they are grievously one dimensional, and unlike those Warner Bros. movies from the 1940s, the modern mob movie seems to be disproportionally modeled after Coppola’s The Godfather, with its dreary semantics and overbearing diffused lighting, glorifying crime as the product of American capitalism every bit as much as Abraham Polonsky films desecrate every single solitary businessman as little more than petty crooks. Recklessly focused on tug-o-war power grabs, these movies dovetail around moral judgments as relativist Faustian legends.
Black Mass is dramatically different in the same manner that The Long Good Friday differs from Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (two movies I do like) in that it’s set in Irish-Catholic South Boston rather than mob-infested New York or New Jersey, and it involves a sanctioned hit on the Italian mob by the feds using street thugs who wish to eliminate their competition.
Convicted for armed robbery in 1965, James “Whitey” Bulger serves nine years in the Atlanta Penitentiary, Alcatraz and Leavenworth before volunteering to participate in a government LSD experiment to win release, showing back up in his hometown as the boss of an infamous, feared street gang known as the Winter Hill Gang. What’s not known, however, is that Bulger has made a deal via his childhood friend, now FBI agent John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton. Edgerton is the centerpiece of Black Mass, going from rationalized commitment to flawed indignation at the tilt of his head. Torn between job, family and old school street honor to Whitey, the character brings the audience to the verge of uneasiness.
Transitioned from rock idol into TV heartthrob before entering film through Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Johnny Depp has been over-praised (as Captain Jack Sparrow) and under-appreciated (in The Libertine), only to watch his career play it safe in gaudy Tim Burton kid flix like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland. Such promise seemed to deteriorate whether he tackled a Stephen King project like Secret Window or Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate; with each new film, Depp became a caricature of himself.
Undergoing a physical transformation, his slicked-back hair, furrowed brow and off-color smoker’s teeth give Bulger a negative appearance to match his disposition. These facial prosthetics rival the ones in The Hours that earned Nicole Kidman her Oscar. Johnny Depp fades into the persona of Whitey Bulger, becoming inseparable, as his reactions imply an aesthetic of sheer cruelty. I’ll go on record saying it’s his best performance – period!
But then, Black Mass is loaded with stellar performances from Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s kid brother to one of my personal favorites, Julianne Nicholson (Tully), disgusted by her husband’s unholy alliance with Bulger.
But it’s the exposition between Bulger and Connolly, the yin and yang – how they treat their spouses, how both depend on the shadows to hide their motives, the FBI guy more than willing to tamper with evidence to shield for his “Southy” compatriot, or how the convicted murderer expects to be absolved of reprisals since he’s helping to bring down a crime family – that gives the film its abrupt gait, moving the story to where it becomes a vanishing act based around who is the less guilty.
This eternal struggle between Id and Ego is laid bare, and I believe at its foundation is the “secret sauce” discussion where Whitey challenges the eagerness with which a colleague is to blurt out an old family recipe. It’s a pivotal moment for Deep that reveals his true nature is dichotomous: the local boy who understands the big picture. It’s nearly impossible to fathom that here is an actor who in the span of one calendar year – 2015 – has given the absolute “worst” performance in Mortdecai, and simultaneously delivered its best performance, here.
Black Mass bears the poetic markings of sewage run-off from whichever Dennis Lehane novel intrigues Hollywood next. Love that dirty water.