Sunday, September 27, 2015

New movie review: Black Mass

Johnny Depp stares down Joel Edgerton in director Scott Cooper's Black Mass.

The gangster movie is a hallowed tradition in American cinema. Popular since the start of the sound era, movies about lowlifes and criminals have never really gone out of fashion as other genres have waxed and waned – think westerns or musicals. Audiences have always craved stories about the darker side of life, and filmmakers have never been shy about making those stories. The template was set by William Wellman’s excellent The Public Enemy (1931), starring James Cagney, and little has changed since.

The last all-time classic gangster movie was probably Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and that celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. Cinemas have seen hundreds of crime movies since then, most of them heavily inspired either by Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, but few of those films have had anything new to say about the genre. Eight decades on, directors still struggle to leave a mark on the form Wellman perfected.

Now we have director Scott Cooper’s foray into the genre, Black Mass, based on the true story of Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) and his tyrannical reign over the city’s underworld. Bulger, whose story was repurposed and fictionalized for Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed, was a low-level crime figure with friends at the FBI. His law-enforcement connections – in particular his friendship with FBI agent Jack Connolly (Joel Edgerton) – allowed him to rise to prominence with the Irish gangs and take out the competition in the Italian mafia.

Depp plays Bulger as a cold psychopath whose mood can change from congenial to confrontational in an instant, and it is startling to watch as a compliment over dinner suddenly becomes a threat. To portray Bulger, Depp is hidden behind layers of makeup and prosthetics, as well as colored contacts that never stop being distracting. Still, underneath all that, Depp is able to find the core of Bulger and delivers a nuanced performance that ranks among the actor’s best work. It is first time in years Depp has played a character worthy of his talents, which is refreshing, but the same cannot be said for the movie.

Depp and Edgerton in Black Mass.
While Depp is able to dig below the surface and find substance in Bulger, Cooper and co-writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth fail to find any deeper meaning in the story overall. The great gangster pictures such as Goodfellas or The Godfather or Little Caesar have great themes tying their stories together, usually something about greed, corruption, power, or all three. Black Mass features those elements, but the filmmakers seem uninterested in exploring them. They are there for the illusion of depth but offer little tangible value.

The true tale of a federally sanctioned mob boss is inherently interesting, but the film never comments on the implications of all this collusion and corruption. There is no consideration of what it says about our culture that the government was willing to let a pack of psychopaths roam the streets just for the chance to take a different set of psychopaths off the streets. There is a cautionary tale in the Bulger-Connolly story that speaks to the pitfalls of loyalty and trying to choose the lesser of two evils, but the film never gets there, buried as it is beneath the artifice of genre.

None of this would be unforgivable if the film worked as an entertaining thriller, but in most regards, it is not that either. Depp infuses his scenes as Bulger with a go-for-broke, anything-can-happen energy that is sorely lacking from the rest of the film, which starts to drag anytime Bulger is not on screen. Because Bulger succeeds to the extent he does only with Connolly’s help, the filmmakers are right to split time between the two men’s stories. However, the character of Connolly is so dramatically inert that his half of the film is bereft of intrigue.

Edgerton is game, as always, but Connolly is treated as nothing more than another Bulger henchman, albeit one with a badge. His fate is so tied up in what happens to Bulger that the audience is never given the chance to relate to Connolly as an individual, though at least Connolly is given a semblance of personality. The rest of the cast mostly exists just to orbit around the black mass at the center of the story, there either to be killed by Bulger or inform on him to the U.S. Justice Department.

And inform they do in what turns out to be the film’s biggest misstep. Black Mass is a structural mess as the writers attempt to frame the story as flashbacks told to the government by former Bulger associates. There is nothing wrong with this style, per se, but the film drops it and picks it back up almost at random. We get flashbacks directly related to the informers, but we also see Bulger and Connolly engage in actions no one else would be privy to, begging the question of how the informers would know what happened. It is distracting and unnecessary, and it interrupts whatever rhythm the film is able to find.

Cooper is a fine director, and his 2013 sophomore feature Out of the Furnace still has the power to stun, but all the personality he showed in that film is missing from this effort. There is nothing about Black Mass to distinguish it from similar films that have come before or that will come after. It is one of the perils of genre filmmaking to get lost in the genre and come out feeling generic.

See it? No.

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