Mark Reviews Movies

Black Mass


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Scott Cooper

Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Kevin Bacon, W. Earl Brown, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, Juno Temple

MPAA Rating: R (for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use)

Running Time: 2:02

Release Date: 9/18/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 17, 2015

It comes as little surprise to learn that Black Mass, a dramatized account of mobster James "Whitey" Bulger's unholy "alliance" with the FBI, was adapted from a book by two journalists. The movie answers four of the Five Ws essential to journalism. It tells us "who": Bulger, his associates, the FBI, and one particular federal agent. It tells us "when": from 1975 to 1994. It tells us "where": Boston—primarily South Boston. It mostly tells us "what": that Bulger worked the criminal informant system to conceal his illegal misdeeds, that the FBI didn't do anything about Bulger's actions for decades, and that one federal agent helped Bulger retain his status as an informant, despite a dearth of any actual information coming from the crime lord. The fifth is "why," and that's the area that's lacking.

The details here do add up to an interesting portrayal of how all of this happened. There are two stories here: Bulger rising to infamy and John Connolly, the FBI agent, aiding in that rise. Save for several law enforcement interviews with Bulger's crime associates after the fact, the narrative proceeds in chronological order—from one crime to the next and from one cover-up to another. We learn that the entire situation was a mess from the start and only became worse, as everyone who could have done something to stop it realized they were in too deep. After all, the devil you know is still a devil.

Basically, the screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (adapted from the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill) tells us everything we already knew about this case. We want more than just the facts, but the movie takes this story at face value and runs with it.

Bulger is played by Johnny Depp in a performance that takes full advantage of the makeup. The most distinct features here are his glassy blue eyes, which appear almost unnatural to a human being, as if they had been transplanted from some predatory animal. Director Scott Cooper often shoots his actors here in close-up, which is especially effective during those interview scenes, as the toll of the actions of the past shows itself (or, sometimes, doesn't) on the faces of the offenders.

The method is never more eerie than when Depp's face fills the frame with those piercing eyes. They scan for something, and when they find it, they stay locked on to Bulger's target. Add to those eyes the pock-marked complexion and the receding hairline leading to slicked-back, thin strings barely covering a pale scalp, and Depp's Bulger has an almost reptilian appearance. Early in the movie, he tells a henchman who has threatened to hit him to take his best shot, because, if Bulger gets up, he'll eat the guy. We believe him.

The story begins in 1975 with the return of newly-minted FBI agent Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to his native Boston. Working under an edict to stop the Italian mafia's criminal activity in the city, Connolly approaches Bulger, a childhood acquaintance who helped him with some bullies in his youth, through the gangster's brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Massachusetts state senator.

Bulger wants the mafia out of Boston, too. They've been trying to take over his turf. Eventually, he agrees to become an informant, but he wants it known that he's not a rat. He'll never give up his own men or enterprises.

Of course, people within the FBI should have realized Bulger's scheme, and the movie suggests that there were some questions from officials in the agency (Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott play the most vocally skeptical of the bunch, while David Harbour plays the one who thinks it's worth a shot—before getting in as deeply as Connolly). The possibility of getting the mafia is just too tempting, especially when Bulger points Connolly at their headquarters.

The relationship makes simultaneously logical and terrible sense, and the scenes of the feds weighing out this plan, without realizing Connolly's deception, cut to the quick of it. On the other hand, we never do comprehend—and the movie seems to have little interest in—why Connolly would risk as much as he does by taking it as far as he does, save for some words about honor and loyalty.

We don't understand Bulger any better, either, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. His story focuses more on his criminal ventures and ensuring that no one can pin any of them on him.

Plenty of bodies pile up, at first under a bridge along the Neponset River and later in the basement of a house he kept to make people feel safe (Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, and W. Earl Brown play the right-hand men who help their boss in this regard and who, later, have turned witnesses against him). There's little insight, although there really needn't be, anyway. The few ways in which the movie tries to either turn Bulger into a sympathetic character or see him as a man of contradictions ring false. Bulger being a loving father, a loving son, and a steadfast brother neither makes him sympathetic nor serves as a contradiction for a man who prizes loyalty above all else.

Black Mass dutifully follows this story point by point. It just feels as if the movie is missing the lines connecting them.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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