“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen”
The story of Southie crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) is perfectly suited for a sprawling, character-driven cinematic adaptation because of the corruption level involved. Based on the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehrand Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworthtake us through an in-depth look at a local gangster making good on his promise to watch out for South Boston just as he helps ruin it with drugs and murder before ultimately transforming into an untouchable kingpin with the help of the FBI. The connections are so incestuous and steeped in a sense of blind loyalty that souls are literally sold for personal gain on every side. Stopping one monster by creating your own is pretty much the American way.
It was a long-gestating project with Barry Levinson attached to direct at one point before Scott Cooper came on board. The scope is much larger than what he’s used to, but he definitely succeeds at making it seem smaller through the same dramatic nuance wielded on Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace. It helps that there’s so much personal behind-the-scenes material whether the odd connection of having a State Senator for a brother (Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Billy), the olive branch from old chum turned FBI hero John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) asking to ally for information, and the tragic turmoil that befell his young son. This monster retains a softer side to almost earn our empathy until his true colors come out to remind us who he really is.
This could be his temper towards girlfriend Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson) when she tearfully explains how she can no longer watch her boy remain in a coma or his coldness at dispatching someone close to right-hand man Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) because she might know too much. On a purely practical level you almost admire his tenacity and savvy in these situations because insulating himself from potential entrapment becomes the only way he can survive doing what he does. But for a guy who’d shoot you in the head without hesitation for ratting to then partner with the feds—how couldn’t it bite him eventually? While a relationship with Connolly would remove his competition, he still knew his gang would never understand.
It’s a wrinkle that makes his life extremely complicated because he must keep his actions hidden from the FBI on one hand and from his men on the other. He brings Steve into the circle to help just as Connolly recruits Agent John Morris (David Harbour) to be his accomplice once the need to cover up a lot of criminal activity arrives. Here’s where that sense of loyalty comes in coupled with the selfish material gain getting into bed with a man like Bulger provides. Connolly doesn’t have to talk himself into doing anything because he revels in the celebrity status he’s achieved. Whitey’s tough man Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) is faithful to a fault because he knows his boss would never go against his own principles.
So when the bottom eventually drops, the fallout is fantastic. We know the result from the start considering the story is told via police interviews with Weeks, Steve, and gunman John Martorano (W. Earl Brown) laying everything on the line for plea deals, but watching their reaction upon hearing the truth is a devastating affair. To see the look of betrayal on their faces is a big contrast to Connolly’s sheer disappointment at getting caught. The bad guys become sympathetic and the good in line for a righteous comeuppance. It’s this type of complexity that makes Black Mass more than a simple biopic or current affairs history. At its core it’s really just a glimpse at mankind’s capacity to fallibly trust the wrong man.
A lot of information comes across as the years go by and even more periphery players to enhance each plot thread. Because while it originally sets itself up as a quest to remove the mafia for FBI brass Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott), the direction soon turns to jai alai, money laundering, and a pile of bodies in Whitey’s wake. In come by-the-books adversaries for Connolly like Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) in the US Attorney’s Office, coked-out wild cards Bulger cannot control like Brian Halloran (Peter Sarsgaardsteals his scenes), and a naively aloof prostitute in Juno Temple‘s Deborah. The circus expands so rapidly due to Bulger believing himself to be protected that you wonder if his alliance did more harm than good.
The plot becomes a comedy of errors of sorts punctuated by sharp deathblows consisting of gunshots, screams, and little else. Their clinical precision is a measured choice on Cooper’s part because we don’t necessarily care about the victims as more than collateral damage to bolster Bulger’s clout and power. It’s because they are so matter-of-fact too that the genuine comedy shining through—something that took me off-guard at first before settling in as a welcome reprieve to the violence—can feel authentic. The dark sarcasm like Bulger telling his son to punch people in the face when no one is looking and Edgerton’s overzealous good guy nature are believable because life always has moments of levity in the darkness.
Everyone’s acting is top-notch from Sarsgaard’s crazed demeanor to Bacon and Scott’s bureaucratic acquiescence when not yelling to Julianne Nicholson‘s fear as Connolly’s wife knowing the end can’t be good. Edgerton is a lot of fun as the FBI hero playing both sides until realizing he’s been in Whitey’s pocket and Plemons’ Weeks proves a highlight of allegiance and pained sorrow at what his idol did. But it’s the Depp show when all is said and done and he’s up to the task. Simultaneously vicious and approachable besides those creepy blue eyes, he relishes in protecting Southie by dragging it down into the mud. Despite all the murders and fierce scare tactics, though, it’s the guilt of letting Weeks and Steve down that sticks in my mind.
Rating: R | Runtime: 122 minutes | Release Date: September 18th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Scott Cooper
Writer(s): Mark Mallouk & Jez Butterworth / Dick Lehr & Gerard O’Neill
(novel Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob)