After seeing Black Mass we stood outside the theater trying to figure out why it was called Black Mass. There were barely any scenes in churches - one at a funeral and one at the end, where Whitey Bulger sits in a church as his subordinates are all picked up by the feds - and there was absolutely no religious undercurrent to the film at all. The tagline on the poster helped clear it up (“The unholy union between the FBI and Whitey Bulger”) but the fact that the movie, on its own, doesn’t work with its title is a key to understanding what doesn’t work in general. Black Mass is a movie that has absolutely nothing to say about its subject, and as a result its title is the deepest, most metaphorical part of it.
It’s rare to see a movie as technically well made as Black Mass be as completely uninvolving. It’s easy to blame the parade of shit wigs and worse make-up for the distancing effect on an audience, but the truth is that every single directorial choice creates a chasm between the viewer and the movie. Director Scott Cooper again and again chooses framing and angles that render his scenes airless, and he uses editing that deflates the drama from almost every sequence, especially the scenes of violence. He directs his actors into performances that are cringingly phony, and they’re saddled with accents that sound like they’re from comedy sketches. He has made a movie that could have been called Bullet Points, not only because that’s a pretty good name for a mob film but also because the movie is simply a series of bullet points about the life and career of Whitey Bulger, almost totally divorced from any sense of drama, excitement or humanity.
What’s crazy is that the central story here seems unbeatable. FBI man John Connolly returns to his home of Boston and is assigned to bust the local Cosa Nostra. He turns to his childhood best pal, Whitey Bulger, who is now a major crime figure in South Boston and whose brother, Billy, is one of the most powerful politicians in the city. Connolly wants Bulger to give him dirt on the Italian mob, Bulger’s natural enemy, and in return Connolly will protect Bulger and his Winter Hill gang.
How do you fuck that up? Somehow Cooper, and a screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, manages to do it completely. This three-way dance of corruption and loyalty should be the stuff of Shakespearian drama; here, finally, is the kind of intrigue and grey morality needed to make a truly great Irish mobster movie, a Goodfellas or a Godfather for the Southies. But the film never gets that relationship in its crosshairs, never dramatizes the conflicts inherent in this ‘unholy union.’ None of these characters have arcs, they just go from not being in trouble to being in trouble at the end of the movie. It’s the most bizarre choice I have seen in a major motion picture, to take three steps back from the people and just portray their activities dryly.
The film is so dry. It has no sense of place; while people keep talking about Boston this could be any city in America where people talk in cartoonish accents. There’s no sense of the culture of the Irish in Boston; when Whitey starts running guns to the IRA it almost seems out of character - why does this guy give a shit about anything at all? Even the rivalry between the Irish and Italian mobs has no oomph to it, and it’s all explained in exposition. The film itself is structured as the recollections of Bulger’s associates as they rat on him, but unlike the flavorful, memorable, exciting voice over in Goodfellas the VO here is perfunctory, empty, boring and ugly. Like the film itself it’s bland.
Within all this blandness are a couple of performances that simply don’t work. Johnny Depp anchors the movie with a portrayal of Bulger that is acutely missing an interior life; by the end of the movie I had no better understanding of how Bulger thought or felt or what was ever going on inside that make-up encrusted head of his. Bulger looks like some kind of leather jacket Nosferatu, and the most menacing thing about Depp’s performance is the contact lenses shoved in his eyes and the yellow tooth affixed to his caps. It’s simply one of the phoniest performances of the year, a performance by a guy who perhaps no longer understands how humans interact or communicate and who often seems to be pantomiming his emotions. There’s one scene where Bulger menaces Connolly’s wife that Depp oversells to the point of comedy, where he rubs the back of his hand on her face like he’s lost all sensation in his extremities, like that scene in Spies Like Us where Chevy Chase grabs Donna Dixon’s boob.
Opposite Depp is Joel Edgerton, a fine actor left out in the wind in a big way. The script fails Edgerton on a fundamental level; his John Connolly might as well be walking around in a shirt that says “I Support the Winter Hill Gang.” Edgerton is forced to deliver lines intended to cover up his involvement with Bulger that are so stupid, so obvious, that you lose respect for everyone hearing his line of flagrant bullshit. Connolly himself is devoid of conflict - he helps Whitey, the end. Maybe that’s the real story but man does it make for shit drama; there needs to be a scene where Connolly expresses doubt or frustration of some sort. As it is I was frustrated watching this guy be so terrible at being a double agent; I was rooting for Connolly to fall not because he was doing the wrong thing (there’s a moral argument to be made that the movie never truly attempts) but because he’s just the worst liar in history.
Black Mass is the kind of movie that fools you at first. It’s handsome and well shot, and these actors are, for the most part, good actors. You think that you’re watching a prestige picture of some sort. But what you’re really watching is a flaccid dangler of a movie, a film that doesn’t actually have any interest in getting it up. Black Mass is a bore, a sleepy checklist of real life events that has absolutely no blood in its veins.