Black Mass: a light film about an important story of US corruption

Summary: Here Locke Peterseim gives one of his typically excellent reviews. He looks at Black Mass, explaining not just the film but also how and why it gets brought to the screen. The film tells one of the most important stories of corrupt law enforcement in US history, showing how the system is fundamentally dysfunctional. Unfortunately, unlike the revelations of Frank Serpico, there was no equivalent of the NYC’s 1970 Knapp Commission to drive reforms. We’re not what we were, but can become so again.

Poster for "Black Mass"

The Hollow Weight of Black Mass

By Locke Peterseim.
From the film blog of Open Letters Monthly.
Reposted with his generous permission.

We’re all familiar with the Big Pivot the Cinematic Industrial Complex makes over Labor Day, when suddenly the theaters are no longer stuffed with superheroes and exploding action vehicles (starring Good Actors Paying for New Homes in Southern Europe), but instead begin to fill with Important Meaningful films about things (starring Good Actors Doing Serious Acting).

But whether their subject is Transforming Super-powered Race Cars or Exploring Human Nature and the Quest for Truth, the questions remains the same when approaching the new seasonal slate of films: Why is This Thing Here? Or more importantly, Why Am I Expected to Spend Two-plus Hours Watching It?

The answer to the first question is simple: To win awards. I know that sounds crass and cynical, and I know very well that many really talented and artistically sincere writers, directors, and even actors make truly amazing films because they share a desire to say something with their cinematic work — not, to get awards. (Though most will admit after a drink or two that awards are certainly nice, in terms of gratification and appreciation, but they also come in handy when lining up future passion projects.)

Johnny Depp in Black Mas

But very few writers, directors, or actors (with the exception of Mel Gibson Before the Fall) make their beloved creative projects on their own dime — it takes a studio and lots of (usually overseas) financing to get Johnny Depp into a bald wig. But there’s not that much sweet hot cash to be made on a serious, grown-up movie — even the most successful ones at the box office still don’t offer a huge return on investment; not compared to the mounds of filthy lucre that can come with a big, dumb, action-adventure blockbuster smash.

So yes, when we seriously ask “why” these types of films (about things other than superheroes, cars, and dinosaurs) get made (that is, financed), it’s because a studio and financers felt there was some prestige to be gained (to help all creatives involved sleep better on their giant piles of superhero-movie cash), and these days creative prestige is measured in awards.

While we serious grownups may praise fall and winter movies for their more serious, grown-up topics, in the end, many of them are, in their own special more serious, grown-up way just as shallow and calculating as summer movies about exploding dinosaurs and aliens. Like summer movies, many prestige films have a primary purpose that is not necessarily to make the best film possible in order to really say something insightful and important. Instead, it’s to win awards.

Dakota Johnson
Dakota Johnson

This isn’t true of every “prestige” film that comes out between Labor Day and Christmas — there are, in fact, some very good films coming out this fall that showcase the powerful creative and thematic intent of the filmmakers, and that may also happen, along the way, to get nominated for some awards. But there are others Big Serious Important films coming out that feel as if either that creative and thematic intent got lost amid the push for Award Hardware, or worse, that it may have never been fully there in the first place.

Which brings us to Black Mass, the fall season’s first Big Serious Important film. As I’m sure we all know, it tells the mostly true story of not just psychopathic South Boston gang leader James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp, doing Serious Acting in the aforementioned bald wig), but also of his too-cozy take-and-take relationship with the FBI, by way of Bulger’s childhood friend-turned-FBI agent James Connelly (Joel Edgerton). Directed by Scott Cooper from Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworths’ script (based on the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill), Black Mass sports compelling performances from Depp and Edgerton.

(It also features a rogues gallery of solid and sleazy supporting actors including Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, and Peter Sarsgaard, as well as Kevin Bacon, John Morris, Adam Scott, and Corey Stoll.)

But the film also plows through and eventually stalls out amid a truckload of Goodfella-era gangster-movie familiarity. There’s a lurking sense of inevitability in Black Mass, not just because most viewers know how Bulger’s story eventually ends, but because we know how these sorts of movies go.

We know exactly what happens when the hapless goon or hopeless patsy gets in a car with the Bad Guys or when someone tries to cross the ambitious and paranoid Mob Boss on a deal. We sit and watch and say, “Oh, this is gonna be one of those scenes” — which doesn’t mean we don’t still get a lurid thrill of disgust from it, but we can’t pretend to be surprised.

FBI at work.
FBI at work in Black Mass. Not glamorous, but effective.

Yes, there’s a sometimes hilariously wide swath of South Bawstahn accents on display from the film’s international cast. And yes, the pile of prosthetic make up glued to Depp’s actorly noggin is equal parts effective and distracting. And yes, there’s lots of violence — some of it shocking, some of it disturbing. But as the bodies pile up (most of them under Whitey’s favorite buryin’ bridge), there’s a diminishing sense that all the violence and deaths don’t add up to anything — they feel like they’re there because they’re gangster movie tropes, not because they say much about Whitey or the film’s intended points.

Which of course gets at the larger problem with Black Mass — the reason it falls into the bucket of Awards Bait for Awards Bait’s Sake. The film doesn’t have much to say about anything other than Whitey was Evil and Depp is Really Doing a Lot of Acting About Him. To be sure, all that “evil” and all that “acting” go a long way toward keeping Black Mass engaging and even entertaining throughout most of its running time. Depp’s Bulger is all mesmerizing Dark Prince; quiet, tightly-coiled reptilian menace with those scary blue snake eyes peering out of a pale and sharp-edged face.

But somewhere around the midway point, as the film’s story starts to shift from what an evil villain Whitey is to how deeply connected and corrupted the ambitious-loser Connelly is becoming, you start to sense that you’re watching it all purely as morbid entertainment — as viewing experiences go, at its core it’s no different than watching free-range dinosaurs eat tourists. And doesn’t have much more to say other than “it sucks to get eaten by a dinosaur, or a Boston criminal.”

There’s a surprising lack of human nuance and insight from director Cooper, whose previous films Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace focused on character and behavior first and foremost. Which is why I’m beating up on Black Mass (despite its undeniable watchablity) as an example of a sort of hollow increasingly prevalent Awards-Season drama. Depp clearly wanted a thick, meaty, dark and dangerous role he could sink his actor teeth into, but I’m sure he also wouldn’t mind finally winning an Oscar and laying down a new coating of Actorly Importance over his past decade’s resume of increasingly pointless Tim Burton weirdos and Disney pop-culture paydays.

And yet, Depp still ends up playing Bulger like one of his Disney/Burton caricatures — a weirdo outsider, The Other, someone with no real connection to us average human beings. No one’s denying Depp his acting chops or his ability to still command onscreen attention (he did a fine job playing another famous criminal, John Dillinger, with much more emotional complexity in Public Enemies), but here he’s leaning just as much on the notion of Bulger as some sort of freak-show oddity or monstrous creature as he is on the hair and makeup department.

Johnny Depp in "Black Mass"

With Depp’s evil Whitey at the center of Black Mass, it seems as if Cooper and his writers are unable to wrestle the film back toward more complex ideas. In fact, the film’s focus on its fascinatingly terrible (the skull-faced and vicious Bulger) and venally tragic (the stone-faced and stupid Connelly) protagonists leaves it blind to a possible, richer, and certainly more daring and dangerous path.

I’m not going to prosecute Black Mass on its historical accuracy and lack thereof — like any biopic drama, there are quibbles to be had with the narrative shortcuts and creative liberties taken — many of them recently raised by Bulger’s literal partners in crime.

But I do feel the film’s obsession with Whitey the Psycho and Connelly the Fallen Agent ignores what may have been the more interesting and important story. Despite Connelly’s collusion with Bulger — turning a dumb eye to the criminal’s abuse of his position as a (mostly useless) FBI informant as well as Bulger’s murder of cohorts — there are suggestions that the Bureau itself was possibly much more complacent, even conspiratorial in later covering up its association with Bulger.

Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster
Available at Amazon.

Awards Season dramas tend to focus on sexy, seductive, or sleazy “bad apple” individuals like Bulger and Connelly, while letting institutions and authoritative systems off the hook. (The exception is this season’s much better, much stronger and more powerful Sicario which bravely and exhilaratingly aims right at the System.)

After all the acting and the killing and the darkness, Black Mass doesn’t little more than further burnish Bulger’s legendary, otherworldly evilness. Just like those summer-movie amusement park rides fall theater-goers love to sneer at, you still go into the tunnel, gawk and scream at the bogeyman at the center, and then leave the theater thinking, “Wow, what a monster; what a rush, huh?”

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About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves — and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

For More Information

To learn more about this revealing episode in US history, start with the Wikipedia entry about Whitey Bulger. Also see the ten books about this story. Probably the best is Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice by Boston Globe reporters Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy (2013). It’s one of the great tales of corruption in our law enforcement system, up there with Serpico (1973).

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The trailer for Black Mass