By Noel Vera
Directed by Scott Cooper
SCOTT COOPER’s Black Mass is working on terrific material: the rise and fall of one James “Whitey” Bulger, who terrorized Boston in the 1980s and early ’90s. As played by Johnny Depp in thick makeup Whitey is a ghoul, a walking dead with lifeless fish eyes, a rotted tooth, a freckled forehead that stretches almost to the back of his skull. He whispers in his most gravelly Don Corrado Prizzi voice, glowers his most intense Michael Corleone glare and we can believe he’s the head of a gang: only a mob boss can look like that and not get laughed off the street for trying too hard.
The script (by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) is based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob and far as I can tell for the most part it’s accurate, down to Whitey actually winning a lottery (well, he might have talked the man who bought the ticket in a store he owned into splitting the winnings). Accuracy seems beside the point though; the movie is dimly lit and dimly dramatized; it seems to mistake solemnity and a deliberate pace for a sense of gravitas and can barely build up momentum, much less interest.
About the only time you can feel any tension is when Whitey is approaching one of his intended victims, talking them up, trying either to put them at ease or upset their complacency. You pretty much know he’s going to get it — the only unsettled question, the only element generating suspense is just when and how (at one point it’s a young girl, an unarmed civilian, and to the questions already running through your head you can add “Do you have to go through your schtick for someone who can’t really fight back?”).
Perhaps another element of interest is the question of FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly believes Whitey is his ticket to the big time, and Whitey feels similarly; one of them is correct. Connolly’s stance as he attempts to keep his balance over insidiously shifting ground is one of the more interesting subplots of the film, and at one point gives rise to one of its most chilling moments, when Whitey menaces Connolly’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) in their bedroom.
Doesn’t seem enough, though; either we don’t see enough of Connolly’s crisis of soul (mostly we see him massaging evidence to keep Whitey out of trouble, or we see both Whitey and Connolly clubbing and taking vacations together) or Edgerton hasn’t been given enough to really dive into his role. The subplot could have been the film’s secret heart (we keep the focus on Whitey of course for box-office purposes) but for whatever reason this heart’s pulse seems weak.
Same goes for the other most interesting character in the picture, Whitey’s brother Billy. Billy’s a straight arrow senator, though actor Benedict Cumberbatch does his level best to suggest ambiguity through Billy’s oddly couched phrases and slightly hooded eyes but there’s only so much you can do with gestures and vocal inflections (a lot, not enough).
Interesting assertion by RogerEbert.com film critic Matt Zoller Seitz: that we’re meant to see Whitey from the outside, from several different perspectives, hence the kabuki makeup (representing his demonic apperance to others) and lack of insight into his character. Good argument, only I’ve seen it done before, and in my book better: in Francesco Rosi’s 1962 Mafia film Salvatore Giuliano, where the bandit is seen through the testimony of several witnesses. The eponymous character himself doesn’t really appear on-screen; at film’s start we see his dead body sprawled on the ground (face down), we sometimes see him at film’s frame’s edge, we occasionally hear snatches of his voice. The man’s absence tends to amplify his legendary status (as if he’s already receding into history), point up his ambiguous nature (man of the people or yet another power-crazy bandit?), emphasize the unholy alliance between the Mafia, Giuliano’s own people, and the government. A lot like Whitey’s story, actually, only more complexly and interestingly told.
I’ll say this much for Cooper’s movie; it helped sharpen my appreciation for an earlier attempt at depicting Whitey on the big screen, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006). Criticized for being a remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2002), the film turns out to be a profanely funny no-holds-barred look at betrayal: how trust is a precious commodity not to be wasted (and how impossible to regain, once lost); how one is drawn to the family/group one is betraying, tempting one to betray (in turn) the family/group that sent you in the first place; and how loyalty and paranoia have their own intricate little rules and corollaries that can leave you facing backwards, or standing on your head, or worse. Done in Scorsese’s blood-thriller style, to an always eclectic, always interesting soundtrack of rock, Irish folk tunes, and opera.
Lost in all that is yet another more interesting theme: that war is a youth’s game, virile men sent out by impotent old farts (the scene in the theater with the dildo gave the game away) to fight and perhaps die for them, the winner being the tribe with the most breeders left standing, or the most women impregnated. I know folks who freak when they cite the film’s final shot, of a large rodent crossing the window frame — the film is about “rats” after all — but I see that shot differently: rodents have an even better chance than we do of surviving a nuclear war or any other number of ecological, geological or biological apocalypses. Scorsese (or so my theory goes) was merely indicating the most likely winner in this endless round of warfare.
MTRCB Rating: R-16