There is often a complaint about a lot of mobster films in that they glorify organized crime. That is not the case in this dramatic biopic covering the history of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp). Gone are the blood ties and familial/friendship bonds portrayed in films like The Godfather, Goodfellas and Depp’s own Donnie Brasco. Instead, our main character is portrayed as an unrelatable villain who is opaque, who kills and threatens friends and foes alike, and is just a generally unlikeable person all around. And yet, as the implied theme of the film states rather boldly, there is something oddly alluring about the life and crimes of ‘Whitey’ Bulger.
Whitey and his crew, the Winter Hill Gang, comprised of Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) and Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown), have a tentative hold on the crime dealings in South Boston, but are being muscled in on by the powerful Angiulo Brothers. Meanwhile, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a former childhood friend of Whitey’s, has returned to South Boston as a rising-in-the-ranks FBI agent who is also gunning to take down the Angiulos. Connolly gets the idea to hire Whitey as an informant, and after contacting him through his senator brother William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), initiates a pact between the FBI and the mob.
It is this relationship that really drives this film and makes Connolly the most interesting character in the film, by far. Whitey himself starts off as likable (to a degree) when shown interacting with his family early in the film. As the film progresses, Depp’s character becomes more distant and inscrutable; he transforms from a person into an empty killing machine. Yet, on the other end of the deal, Connolly remains obsessed with complying with all of Whitey’s requests in spite of the mobster’s shortcomings. As an informant, Whitey generally sucks and never really gives up any good information, yet Connolly insists on protecting him from his own agents, and in so doing, actually assists in the gang’s murders and helps to build up Whitey’s gang into a criminal empire.
It is obvious that Connolly’s drive to impress Whitey seems to come from a mix of hometown loyalty, an opportunity for his own career advancement, and the cool feeling of being involved with criminals. Connolly himself narrates early on that they all grew up to play the same game of cops and robbers they did as kids; similar to that game, it’s sometimes hard to figure out the good guys from the bad guys. On the other hand, I have little to no idea why Whitey’s mobster buddies are so loyal to him. Much like Connolly, he treats most of his buddies like shit and exploits all of them for personal gain. You’d think their drives would be easier to understand since the film is narrated in an after-the-fact confessional by them, but what they say offers little insight into their souls and instead act as thematic bridges between various historical vignettes. Like Whitey, these mobsters are also, unfortunately, glossed over and not well characterized through most of the film.
Instead, this movie is mostly comprised of recounted events. The film hastily joins together the various exploits of the gang with little explanation as to their motives and causes/effects. Like some of the Harry Potter films, I feel like the Black Mass is almost assuming the audience has an understanding of the source material and may have some of the history noobs feeling a little lost from time to time (I know I did). This style is most similar to Scorsese’s gangster films (Goodfellas, Casino, Wolf of Wall Street), only I feel those movies didn’t run into the same story confusion due to them being excessively narrated. Not to say Black Mass is doing it wrong, it’s good that it has a style all its own, it’s just that the viewer may have to make a few narrative leaps since the movie isn’t holding your hand through the story.
It’s impossible to not make note of how heavily Goodfellas is borrowed from in an “I’m just fucking with you” scene that occurs. The scene is almost note-for-note the same as the “why the fuck am I funny” scene in Goodfellas, except with a subversion. Where Scorsese crafts that scene to go from humourous to uncomfortable intensity and back to humour again, director Scott Cooper starts the scene with some humour but quickly slams it into the area of dead emotion and uncomfortable intensity and never brings it back from that. In fact, this scene is actually good analogy for comparing the entirety of the two films.
Despite all the announcements for Black Mass as Depp’s return to serious drama, his portrayal of Whitey is really not all that enthralling. As I said earlier, it is Connolly thwarting his own agency and splitting up his family that remains the most intriguing part of this film. It’s one of the only times I can recall becoming a little bored with the gangster part of a movie and kept begging for more of the rise and fall of John Connolly. His bumbling efforts to cover his own tracks while actually creating crimes in his wake can be both hilarious and mystifying. Considering the historical truth of this relationship and how big Whitey’s gang was getting, it’s a wonder that the FBI actually got away with this in real life for so long. It may not rank with the best gangster films, but considering the both interesting and truthful twists contained within, Black Mass is an interesting turn in crime dramas.