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not in our stars, but in ourselves

20 movies for the price of 1: Black Mass

James “Whitey” Bulger was one of the most notorious American mob leaders in history.  Perhaps he would have remained a small-time (but brutal) crook in South Boston (that’s Southie to you, ya intahlopah) were it not for his allegiance with the FBI.  In the mid-1970s, Special Agent John Connolly – who’d grown up idolizing Jimmy – successfully recruited Bulger as an informant.  In return for information about the Italian mafia, which ran the North End, the FBI would turn a blind eye to Bulger’s criminal history.  Connolly insisted that Bulger refrain from committing any serious felonies – murder, drug dealing, etc. – but a leopard cannot change its spots.  More precisely, a canny crime boss cannot pass up the opportunity to monopolize an entire city if he has the feds essentially protecting him.  Bulger committed and ordered many murders while he was an official informant, trafficked drugs and weapons (to the IRA, even!), and generally raised Hell.  After the Boston Globe broke the story that Bulger was an informant, his control of Southie disintegrated (no one wants to do business with a rat), and he went on the lam.  He was finally caught in 2011, and is now serving two life sentences for his many, many, many crimes.

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Black Mass takes this fairly concise story of crime and corruption, and swells it up to two hours of subplots.  We see Whitey (Johnny Depp) doing lots of bad things, but also feeling lots of emotions about his young son (who died after a bad reaction to some aspirin) and his old mum (who died because she was old).  We see Connolly (Joel Edgerton) go to comic lengths to protect the informant he thinks is his friend.  We see interviews with various members of Whitey’s Winter Hill Gang, at some point in the future, discussing the “escalations” in gang wars and in Whitey’s supposed psychosis.  We see Whitey’s kindhearted offer to assist the IRA with as many guns and as much artillery as they need, because he wants to support the Motherland.  We see a few scenes in a heavily Catholic church.  We see lots of murders.  We see some unnecessary female supporting roles.  We see some nice, presumably digitally altered shots of Boston and Somerville (the location of Winter Hill; there’s a yacht club there now, which you can see from the Orange Line).  We do not see a coherent movie.

I haven’t read Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob.  I’d like to, because I imagine that the sprawling approach taken by the movie reads much better on the page.  A nonfiction book can successfully introduce, flesh out, and develop multiple subplots.  While I’m not one to prescribe what film can and cannot do, I do think that a film without one clear focus needs to be in the hands of a director who knows what the hell s/he’s doing – and I’m not convinced, at all, that Scott Cooper does.  Not here, anyway.  Black Mass suffers heavily for its own lack of focus, and for the feeling that there are any number of more interesting movies located within this one.  To wit:

  • How did the FBI let Whitey get away with these crimes for so long?  Was it really due to Connolly’s falsification of informant reports, making Bulger seem like a more valuable asset than he really was?  Were they just embarrassed to admit that they’d fucked up?  We only see the Boston branch of the FBI; was there no pressure from the bosses in DC?  If we’d seen more of a procedural about the ineptitude, corruption, self-preservation, whatever it was, in the FBI as related to Whitey Bulger, that would have been a much better movie.
  • How can you call a movie Black Mass, and include several lengthy sequences in a Catholic church, and make a movie that’s essentially about the perversion of justice, and not draw some explicit parallels between the Satanic black mass (in which the rites of the Church are inverted, parodied, and mocked) and the inversion/parody/mockery of everything the FBI is supposed to do?  The book refers to this “unholy alliance.” No need to go all that heavy-handed, but bring it up a bit.  Depp caused a stir when he said that he doesn’t see Whitey as a being of pure evil; and while that’s a fair point for the actor to make, the movie doesn’t have to agree with him.  Make him Satan.  Show him as a manipulator and a deceiver.  That would have been, at the very least, a more interesting movie.
  • How did grief – related to the loss of his son and then the loss of his mother – supposedly drive Whitey over the edge?  The movie makes this claim, but never actually shows us how or when it happened.  He was a brute before, and he remains a brute after these supposedly defining moments.  Show him snapping.  Show him metastasize into a gruesome psychopath, driven mad by grief.  Black Mass is one of the least psychologically complex movies I’ve seen since, like, Age of Ultron.  If the screenwriters and director had bothered to consider exactly how and why a son of Southie could have gone from petty criminal to infamous monster, then that would have been a much better movie.
  • How exactly did Ireland and Southie get along, rely on each other, consider each other?  We see a farcical St. Patrick’s Day parade, with Whitey’s brother, Billy (played and curiously accented by Benedict Cumberbatch), giving a speech. (Billy was president of the Massachusetts State Senate, and considered the most powerful man in the Commonwealth at one time.) Southie is, to this day, heavily Irish-American.  I don’t doubt that, back when Ireland was fighting brutally for its independence from England, there were some strong feelings about these things.  The notion of running guns to the IRA is such a loaded (ha!) one that it either warrants an entire movie of its own – or it warrants nothing more than an off-handed mention. (Connolly could say: “You WHAT?!  That was YOUR boat with all the guns in Northern Ireland???  What the fuck, Whitey!”) Pick one, and you would have a much better movie.
  • How exactly does time progress in this story?  We see some date stamps on some frames, when we’ve supposedly jumped forward a few years.  We never learn when exactly it is that the other Winter Hill Gang members, all in a federal interview room, are supposedly being interviewed.  We just know that it’s some years past when the bulk of the action takes place, because their hair is greyer, or styled differently, or whatever.  During the main portion of the action, however, we have almost no sense of time passing.  The fashions are all the same throughout.  The hair is the same throughout.  No one seems to age in the ten years over which most of the story unfolds – and let me tell you, a Boston Irish face is a face that ages a LOT over ten years.  These crimes and cover-ups could have taken place over a couple of months, the way the movie presents them, but they’re supposed to have taken place over the course of twenty years.  Had the passage of time, and Whitey’s rise and fall, been given the proper weight (and accuracy), that would have been a much better movie.

You get the idea.  There are lots of issues here.  I don’t mean to say that the movie is a total failure, but it is extremely unsatisfying.  Even the performances – which I’d been led to believe were the strongest part – are fine at best.  Depp seems to be awake and working hard, for the first time in fifteen years, but his bald cap and contact lenses are distracting and disturbing in ways that I doubt they were meant to be.  I realize he’s playing a monster, but he looks like a Lon Chaney character.  Edgerton, whose Australian-ness translates well to a Boston Irish face, is awfully hamfisted.  Maybe that’s what Connolly is like, but I found it hard to believe that anyone at the FBI would take such a self-aggrandizing twerp seriously.  The less said about the female characters, the better.  None of the female actors – Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife, Dakota Johnson as Whitey’s girlfriend – are bad, but their roles certainly are.  They serve no purpose, except to be something one of the men can lash out at, or intimidate, or bully, or feel up inappropriately.  If you don’t want to write a recognizably human female character, don’t bother including them as anything more than extras.  That’s obviously a shitty solution, but I think it’s more honest (and therefore better) than pretending these women matter to this story.  Clearly, the story doesn’t think so.  The audience won’t, either.

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After we saw this last night, my boyfriend and I were picking it apart, and he said something interesting: it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by Scorsese’s shadow when making a mob movie, and maybe that’s what led to Black Mass going soft on the mob violence aspects of the Winter Hill Gang.  He thinks they shouldn’t have been so timid, because the supposed stakes – eliminating the rival Italian mafia – feel so flimsy without any scenes of proper gang fighting.  I think there’s something to that suggestion.  I also think that Black Mass has embraced the least interesting things about Scorsese mob movies: the swells of melodrama and manly emotion.  Those things can be done well, if you’re Martin Scorsese.  If you’re not Martin Scorsese, and you’re just making a movie about a bunch of white male fuckups, please do not make it about my city.  Do an Al Capone movie or something, I don’t care.  Let Paul Feig make all the Boston movies, and begone.

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2 comments on “20 movies for the price of 1: Black Mass

  1. ridiculoushat
    October 5, 2015

    I would also argue that Mr. Ben Affleck is perhaps the director that best understands how to make a Boston crime thriller after Scorsese. Gone Baby Gone and The Town were both excellent.

    • mcwhirk
      October 5, 2015

      Yes. Ben Affleck can continue to make Boston movies.

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