not in our stars, but in ourselves
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.
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:
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.
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.