I usually like gangster films – in fact if I ever make a list of my favourite movies it’s entirely possible that at least five of them would show up in my top twenty, and two would definitely be in the top five – so it’s probably no surprise that I enjoyed Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s new film about the criminal life of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. This is a confidently-made picture that fleetingly (and presumably deliberately) brings to mind the menacing moments and sprawling nature of Martin Scorsese’s gangster masterpieces, though in truth Black Mass is like a watered-down version of the Italian-American’s best work, lacking all those flashes of humour, swagger and verve, and most importantly failing to consistently surprise the viewer in the same way that Scorsese’s films can (and do). But I don’t want to be too harsh: few filmmakers come off favourably with regard to such a comparison, and it’s unfortunate that Cooper’s film exists within a genre where one man’s shadow looms so large. Taken purely on its own merits, Black Mass is a decent couple of hours of cold-blooded killings and internal affairs, even though it is a little puff-chested and overly-serious.
Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster who spent 12 years on the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ list, has never officially been portrayed on screen in a feature before, though both Peter Doyle’s Dillon in The Friends Of Eddie Coyle and Jack Nicholson’s character Frank Costello in The Departed are supposedly based on him to a certain degree. Here he is played by a typically unsubtle Johnny Depp, who is caked in make-up and looks for all the world like Gary Oldman trying out for a Hellraiser reboot. Slightly-overdone prosthetics aside, Depp’s performance is quite chilling, and Bulger’s ruthlessness and psychotic tendencies reverberate from the moment you first clap eyes on the character all the way to the final scene; I’m not quite convinced that this is the terrific turn it has been billed as elsewhere – it feels too much like a distillation of every memorable headcase gangster we’ve seen in the past thirty years – but it’s entertaining enough and it fits snugly with the myth-making screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk. Bulger’s power and unpredictability is also telegraphed via the looks and reactions of the supporting cast of hoods that work under his command: Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard and W. Earl Brown all produce perfunctory (though unmemorable) ‘tough nut’ performances while repeatedly standing a metre or two behind the film’s star, and all look as if they fear Whitey (as well they should). Joel Edgerton gets a plump role as the FBI agent John Connolly, who grew up in the same Southie neighbourhood as Bulger, and the film’s plot is mainly concerned with their relationship as they become uneasy bedfellows in adult life, passing beneficial information back and forth. Within the seething mass of testosterone that is Boston’s FBI office Edgerton can sporadically be seen clashing and conniving with Kevin Bacon and David Harbour, who play Connolly’s boss and a colleague respectively. There is a lot of shouting within these walls, with men pushing each other to the brink of violence, and plenty of nervy hand-wringing as Connolly’s relationship with his informant becomes too familiar. Benedict Cumberbatch also has a minor role as Whitey’s State Senator brother Billy, and – as widely reported elsewhere – he struggles with the Boston accent.
As you may have noticed it’s a very male-centric cast, and women barely get a look in. Appearances by the likes of Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple and Julianne Nicholson are fleeting at best, which is a shame: when the character played by one of these actors is murdered it’s largely shorn of any dramatic heft due to her lack of screen time up to that point; of course the scene is based on a real life killing, but within the context of a dramtic film it lacks an emotional gut punch, and typically for Black Mass it’s included so that we can see the reaction of a male character towards it, and better understand his later behaviour. I’m not suggesting that the main storyline about Connolly’s relationship with Bulger should have been sacrificed, but extra time spent away from this with the partners of both of these men may have improved the film; certainly with regard to Bulger there is some effort to show his non-criminal family life in the first and second acts, but by the end the female characters of this film have been completely forgotten about, despite events impacting heavily on their lives. A shame.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the aforementioned lack of surprise on offer. If you’ve seen a couple of good modern gangster films then quite honestly you’ve seen Black Mass in all but name: brutal character executions occur regularly and you can see most of them coming a mile off; we see the usual scenes of gangsters shooting the shit in bars and clubs; we witness the net close in on the corrupt FBI official, who gets a little too close to the gangster lifestyle before his behaviour gradually becomes more and more erratic; there are betrayals and we see the rise and the fall of the main gangster in question. There are even a couple of minutes that skirt closely around the Joe Pesci ‘funny how?’ scene in GoodFellas. Slow-mo and period-relevant rock songs kick in at the exact points you expect them too. So sadly no marks for originality, but Black Mass does all the things you expect to see professionally enough. As a fan of the genre that’s just about enough for me, but I don’t think I’ll remember much beyond Depp’s shiny pate.
Directed by: Scott Cooper.
Written by: Jez Butterworth, Mark Mallouk. Based on Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Rory Cochrane, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, W. Earl Brown, Juno Temple.
Cinematography: Masanobu Takanayagi.
Editing: David Rosenbloom.
Music: Junkie XL, Various.
Running Time: 122 minutes.