Black Mass

October 9, 2015
Johnny Depp in 'Black Mass' (2015)
Johnny Depp in 'Black Mass' (2015)

How many dud movies does it take before one can be over an actor? With his roles in films such as Mortdecai (2015) and Tusk (2014), Johnny Depp has been sailing close to the wind. It’s been a long time since he has worked harder on a character than he does with Boston gangster, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, who spent sixteen years on the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ list, before being arrested in Santa Monica in 2011. At one stage the only villain higher on the pecking order was Osama Bin Laden.

Depp plays the crime lord as a ghoul with pale, receding hair, cold blue eyes, bad teeth and an unhealthy pallor. All he needs is a cape and he’d be the perfect vampire. There is also some channelling of Jack Nicholson, who played a character based on Bulger in The Departed (2006).

The real Bulger, who terrorised Boston from the mid 1970s to 1995, had a reputation as a local Robin Hood. Depp’s version makes a few nods towards that image, as he helps an old lady with her groceries and shows a fierce love for his only son, but these interludes do nothing to create a more sympathetic personality. Bulger is a pathological criminal, a killer without a conscience who scares his friends as well as his enemies. There are several occasions in this movie when he eliminates an associate as a mere precaution.

The stage is set for a performance that exudes menace, and Depp gives it his best shot, but one can still see the buffoon and caricature beneath the make-up. The real James Bulger doesn’t look so cadaverous in his photographs.

When it comes to menace, Sullivan Stapleton is twice as scary in Cut Snake, playing a career criminal trying vainly to suppress his own violent instincts. By contrast, Depp’s Bulger indulges every sinister impulse, taking pleasure in the fear he inspires. There is no light-and-shade in this portrait. He is predictably nasty to everyone except his closest family members.

Director, Scott Cooper, has given us a cinephile’s version of a gangster movie, borrowing ideas and motifs from a host of other directors, notably Martin Scorsese. He is reminiscent of Scott Derrickson, whose Deliver Us From Evil (2014), was a textbook horror movie made by a dedicated student of the genre. Such directors can be skilful, but their films have a hollow core. One could say they lack soul, grit, imagination or artistry – the only certainty is that something is missing.

And so it is with Black Mass, a watchable, almost-good film that makes one think of many other gangster movies, instead of the one we are viewing.

The title refers to an unholy alliance engineered by FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who convinces his superiors they should make use of his old school chum, Jimmy Bulger, as an informant in their war against the Mafia. For Bulger this was akin to letting the FBI eliminate the competition, while he pursued his own rackets with impunity.

Although his value as an informant turned out to be minimal, Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang was given carte blanche for almost twenty years. This might sound ridiculous if it wasn’t true. The longevity of the deal didn’t depend on Bulger’s information, but the tireless efforts of Connolly to keep the FBI believing the gangster was providing an invaluable service.

Edgerton’s Connolly is the most complex character in the film. His school playground loyalty to Bulger is unshakable, even though there is little reciprocation. As the story progresses he socialises and parties with his pal, Jimmy, completely forgetting that he is supposed to be on the other side. Connolly’s allegiances are essentially tribal. His respect for Bulger is a form of hero worship, and like any true fan he begins to copy his idol. His wife (Julianne Nicholson) points out that he is talking and walking in a different way, with a newfound swagger.

Those who are closest to Bulger view him in a less idolatrous fashion. Much of the narrative is based on flashbacks to incidents described by gang members who are all cutting deals with the FBI. Each of these hard men, played brilliantly by Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons and W. Earl Brown, seems to have been unnerved by their boss’s brutality, although they never questioned his orders or actions. One of the henchmen is obliged to stand and watch his own girlfriend being strangled.

A startling fact hardly explored in the film is that Bulger’s brother, Billy, (Benedict Cumberbatch) was also the most powerful senator in Massachusetts. The bond between brothers remained firm, but in the film Billy proves resistant to any of Connolly’s efforts to keep him informed, or warn him of imminent dangers. He preserves his detachment in a way that only makes sense in real life rather than fiction.

It may have been part of Bulger’s mystique that he gave so little away. Although we know he loved his son, his mother and his brother, these are the limits of his emotional ties. With others he has the classic coolness of the psychopath. Even if this is an accurate portrayal it makes Depp’s character into an opaque mask of evil, whose chilliness infects the pace and atmosphere of the film. A cold, brooding drama, festooned with gangster movie clichés, there is a plodding inevitablity about the way the story unfolds. Cooper provides little by way of suspense, being content to give viewers the creeps.

Black Mass
Directed by Scott Cooper
Written by Mark Mallouk & Jez Butterworth, after a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, Julianne Nicholson, David Harbour, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson
USA, rated MA 15+, 122 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 10th October, 2015.