What an unnerving film—and just in time for Halloween too. ‘Black Mass’ is an interesting exercise in genre bending/blending. There are really two films playing simultaneously. The first is the historical account of real life gangster James “Whitey” Bulger—a sociopathic killer who used his political connections to reign over South Boston (Southie) for several decades. This offers nothing new to the well-trodden ‘gangster’ genre and plays like Martin Scorsese on Quaaludes. The second movie is not so much about Bulger, but about the idea of Bulger, and the mental effect he had on his community. This is the one to pay attention to, as it is one of the most gripping and disturbing horror movies in recent memory.
Johnny Depp (Bulger), covered in enough make-up to be mistaken for a wax sculpture at times, looks more like ‘Nosferatu’ than anything resembling an actual human. Take for instance the weight lifting scene, and the way the camera looms over his face—like Dracula brooding in his coffin. There’s another scene where Bulger murders two people in a parking lot. The camera makes him appear to swoop in from out of nowhere. If the vampire Depp played in “Dark Skies” ran across this Whitey Bulger in a dark alley, he would quickly transform into a bat and fly far, far away.
Brooding violin music and familiar guitar riffs dot the score, with the violin music used to great effect underlining the abject horror of the Bulger character. I am almost convinced the Rolling Stones have some kind of deal in place where any montage in a gangster movie is required to have either ‘Gimme Shelter’ or ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ played over it. This movie side steps that by using the lesser known ‘Slave’ from 1981’s ‘Tattoo You’ during a montage set in that same year. Of course there’s a nightclub scene with flashing lights and blaring Disco music. The nightclub scene feels like a grotesque outtake from a similar scene in ‘American Hustle.’
The other major character in ‘Black Mass’ is real life FBI agent John Connolly. He formed a controversial alliance with Bulger, purporting to be using him as a source to get to the Italian Mafia (the real enemy for both him and Bulger) meanwhile giving Bulger the legal leverage to grow from a small time racketeer to a virtual Kingpin. Joel Edgerton plays Connolly, who grew up in Southie and idolized Bulger, and who in many ways is Bulger’s principal victim in this movie.
Depp’s performance takes the cake for the overall aura of creepiness, but aside from him there is also Jesse Plemons (who plays a member of the Winter Hill gang) who also played the dead-eyed sociopath ‘Todd’ on ‘Breaking Bad. Then David Harbour, who played the sadistic villain from the underrated ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ is on the other side of the fence as the FBI agent who helps Connolly convince his superiors to welcome Bulger “into the temple”…
Dakota Johnson, best known for the awful ’50 Shades of Grey’ plays Bulger’s wife and the mother of his son here. We get small glimpses into Bulger’s family life here such as a scene with his mother who he jokingly accuses of being a card-cheat, and then a telling scene with his wife and son where he assures him that the real reason he got into trouble at school was not because he punched another kid in the face, but because he did it in front of the teachers. “If nobody saw it, it didn’t happen” Bulger says. These scenes show what little humanity Bulger has in this film, along with his warped sense of morality. In real life and in the movie, once he loses his mother and son, what little humanity there was disappears and the monster takes over Bulger’s soul.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays William Bulger—Whitey’s brother who went to become a senator and later governor of Massachusetts. Cumberbatch, perhaps best known for being the modern day Sherlock Holmes in ‘Sherlock’ is always entertaining and fits into the skin of a slimy politician effortlessly.
‘Black Mass’ sets itself up nicely as a character study, but falters in the middle as the well-worn plot folds in on it itself. The problems start when real life sub-plots, such as the “Jai Alai” scandal which serves the same purpose in ‘Black Mass’ as the Lufthansa heist had in ’Goodfellas’ but doesn’t have nearly the weight or importance it should have for being such a big part of Bulger’s downfall.
That is one of the weaknesses of covering such a large swath of time. Moments like this and other various real life sub-plots fizzle and do not feel as important or interesting as they were in real life. The movie in this way is like a jig saw puzzle being put together in reverse by an endless series of interrogations and murder scenes, which after a while have a more or less numbing effect.
This is the first gangster movie in a while to not make its protagonist an anti-hero. Bulger isn’t played as a charismatic (and therefore sympathetic) figure central to many modern crime dramas, but as the incarnation of pure terror. He doesn’t so much have eyes, as deep dark holes in his face inside which whatever demon that lives inside this mass of flesh uses to peer out at you. Even his associates seem to get a severe case of the creeps when testifying about him later on. We learn in the film that Bulger apparently had LSD experiments (over 50 hours’ worth of them) performed on him during a decade long stretch in Alcatraz. In this movie Bulger stalks about like the living embodiment of a really bad acid trip.
Scott Cooper is becoming one of my favorite and most consistent modern directors. This is the third film of his that I have seen. The first was ‘Crazy Heart’ starring Jeff Bridges in a modern day ‘Tender Mercies’ about a down and out country singer with a lot of soul to it. The second was ‘Out of the Furnace’ starring Christian Bale in a gritty revenge drama set in the Appalachian sector of America’s Rust Belt.
Both were solid, above average movies with slight pacing issues, and so is this one. In all of Cooper’s movies he shows a great eye for the mundane details of human life, and also a great ear for realistic dialects—whether southwestern, Appalachian, or here in South Boston. His dinner table scenes always feel natural, which lends his films a much deserved air of credibility. The first two movies of his were about good characters that caught up in unfortunate circumstances. This movie shows he can also do a thorough job depicting an outright monster. It’s a fascinating glimpse for those who dare to look.
Black Mass gets a four out of five: GREAT.