I should begin this review with a disclaimer: I am a sucker for gangster films. I think The Godfather: Part III is actually a pretty good movie. Maybe it’s because to me the gangster film is part of the American film mythology (I love Westerns too). Or maybe the films just give me a vicarious thrill because I couldn’t raise a fist even if I wanted to. So when I say that Black Mass, a film written and directed by Scott Cooper and starring Johnny Depp as the infamous Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, does not do much more beyond effectively execute every cliché of the genre, I sort of mean that as a compliment. But to people who aren’t predisposed to wanting to see a ton of whackings, that may be a “stay away” sign.
The film, screening at Cornell Cinema, uses the narrative device of having Bulger’s henchmen frame the story as they are cutting deals with the federal government, so the audience knows from the beginning that Bulger’s empire has fallen (and if you know the real-life details, you may already know exactly what happens). Bulger’s rise from a small-time South Boston hood to de facto crimelord of Boston was due to a bargain that would get any gangster an iota less intimidating and controlling than Bulger killed. Bulger struck a deal with the FBI where in exchange for Bulger giving incriminating information about his rivals, the FBI would largely leave him alone. John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton, is the main person at the FBI that Bulger deals with.
Connolly is one of the few interesting features of the otherwise by-the-numbers movie. Connolly grew up with Bulger, and as the movie goes on Connolly clearly enjoys vicariously engaging in the gangster lifestyle, complementary with “business” trips to Miami with Bulger and backyard barbecues. Edgerton is often better than the script he’s given. While the script suggests that Edgerton is merely a gangster who happens to be wearing a badge, which is the usual theme in these kinds of movies, Edgerton’s acting makes his motivation more of a mystery. Does he become seduced and fascinated by Bulger, or was he trying to find a way into Bulger’s world from the very beginning? Or maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, and Edgerton is just another person on the list of uninteresting murderers in this movie.
Depp’s performance is also hard to figure out. There is a lot of makeup placed on Depp: Bulger’s skin is so decrepit and yellow that he is practically a vampire. He has a hideous dead tooth. His icy blue eyes literally suggest that the man has no soul. A quick Google search revealed that Bulger looked nothing like this: He’s just a boring, old white guy. So why the change? Maybe because Bulger was probably just another run-of-the-mill thug (just one that happened to be very powerful in his own small world) and the movie couldn’t work around it, so a wardrobe change seemed like a way to add some color. The fleshing out of Bulger’s character is fairly trite: He is nice to old ladies and is doting to his daughter. Unfortunately, details that do add some depth, like the fact that after tragedy struck Bulger’s life a lackey remarks that they never saw Bulger smile again “unless he was talking about the IRA,” are few and far between.
The movie’s themes are mostly pre existing ones from the gangster film piggy bank: Loyalty (rats are not treated too humanely here); where you came from (Connolly often justifies his alliance with Bulger by arguing that one should never forget where they grew up); blood relations (Bulger’s politician brother protects him from any real prosecution efforts). As you can tell, this movie felt very much like it was treading familiar and already covered ground by superior films. So why did I say at the beginning that I sort of liked this movie? Despite its flaws, it never lost my attention. I can’t really explain why. Perhaps my relationship to this film is similar to the brutes that followed Bulger’s every order — they knew what they were doing was hurting them, but the magnetism of machismo and constant fear of death kept them going.
Jesse Weissman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.