Black Mess a Not-so-Good Look at a Tired Genre

BLACK MASS  (2015)
Directed by Scott Cooper
Warner Brothers, 122 minutes, R (language, violence, sexual situations)
 * *

I didn’t like Good Fellas when it came out in 1990. I now recognize Martin Scorsese’s film as a superb one, but the problem back then was that I had Mafia film fatigue. I mention this for two reasons, the first of which is that I’m tired of films (and books) about South Boston, Boston Irish, and Boston mobs. Been there; done that—a million times since Good Will Hunting. The second reason is that even I had been psyched for all of these things, Black Mass still wouldn’t be a very good movie. I simply can’t conceive of rethinking it in the future.

Black Mass is the portrait of a sociopath, James “Whitey” Bulger, who from 1972 through 1994 was the linchpin of Boston’s infamous Winter Hill Gang. If you can imagine an act of murder, extortion, racketeering, or low-life behavior, the actions of Bulger and his associates could trump you. (Bet you hadn’t considered adding gun-running for the IRA to your imaginary list of nefarious deeds.) Bulger is brilliantly portrayed by Johnny Depp. His is a chilling look at a man so amoral that he could strangle his partner’s step-daughter without an ounce of regret or emotion. How did he get away with his reign of mayhem? One of the film’s few insights is to cast severe doubt on the old adage: “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” In many ways, Bulger was the psychotic stepchild of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—a recruit of South Boston neighbor/agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who hitched his rising star (and ego) to eliminating the Italian Mafia from Boston’s North End through information provided by Bulger. (Connolly, now in prison, actually proved Machiavelli’s assertion about absolute power.)

This is one of many places where Black Mass misses a cue. Rather than explore something meaty, such as Boston's ethnic tension or corruption within the FBI and Massachusetts State government, director Scott Cooper opts for a dip-into-the-decades look at Bulger, an episodic approach that makes sense only to those who already know the details. For everyone else, the script (Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) for Black Mass becomes Black Mess. We watch as Bulger involves himself in (seemingly) random atrocious acts—an approach that ultimately becomes more voyeuristic than horrifying. The supporting cast is strong—Dakota Johnson as Lindsey Cyr, Bulger’s common-law wife; Kevin Bacon as FBI agent Charles McGuire, who doubts Connolly’s integrity; Jesse Plemons as dim-witted mob muscle Kevin Weeks; Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife Marianne; Juno Temple as doomed step-daughter Deborah Hussey—but their roles are mostly cameos and/or window-dressing. The only substantive roles other than Depp’s are those of Rory Cochrane as Steven “The Rifleman” Flemmi, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger, Whitey’s brother and a mainstay of Massachusetts government—first as Senate president and then as head of the University of Massachusetts. Billy was allegedly the family member who went straight—not so, as it turned out to the surprise of no one in the Commonwealth.

Those who followed the sordid Bulger saga will recognize Black Mass as a sort of greatest infamous hits parade. Not even Depp can add oomph to the limp screenplay. Put another way, coverage in the Boston Globe was far livelier than anything Mallouk and Butterworth wrote. (A personal favorite was the Globe’s retelling of Flemmi’s state’s evidence testimony. When asked to describe his relationship with Bulger, Flemmi replied, “Strictly criminal.” Love it! And thanks to Mr. Flemmi for disabusing those eleven Massachusetts residents who thought he and Whitey were ballet partners.) 

In short, director Scott Cooper gives us little more than a paint-by-the-numbers mob picture. You know the formula: Show how a troubled man lost his remaining morals—the death of his son and his mom if you believe the script. Add opportunity, money; splatter with blood. Drop “F” bombs like a one-armed juggler with Indian clubs. Zoom in on the vacant eyes of a killer. Portray law enforcement as inept and corrupt. (Okay, that one adds a whiff of verisimilitude.) Repeat to fill the requisite two hours. The biggest crime committed in this film was wasting Depp’s astonishing performance. You can safely delete this one from your Netflix queue. –Rob Weir

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