Directed by: Scott Cooper
Premise: Based on the nonfiction book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger rises from small time criminal to kingpin by becoming an FBI informant.
What Works: The best elements of Black Mass are its two central performances by Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton. Depp plays Whitey Bulgar and the part allows Depp to be sinister in a way that he’s never really been seen before. In this movie Depp is free from the campiness of Jack Sparrow and there are several scenes in which Depp’s menace is palatable. The other notable character of Black Mass is FBI agent John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton. Connolly is really the central character of the movie as he recruits Bulgar to become an FBI informant and is gradually sucked into the criminal lifestyle. Blurring the line between cops and criminals is a staple of the crime genre but Black Mass offers a version of that story that is more compelling than most. Connolly’s corruption is given an assist by Julianne Nicholson’s performances as the agent’s wife. As her husband ingratiates himself into Bulgar’s underworld the strain is apparent on their marriage and Edgerton and Nicholson have a few effective scenes together. Also impactful is a supporting performance by Peter Sarsgaard as Brian Halloran. Sarsgaard brings a lot to a small part and he stands out in a very crowded cast. Black Mass is also very well shot with some vivid images of violence and it has an authentic feel for its place and time period.
What Doesn’t: Despite the strong performances and some decent technical craft, Black Mass is derailed by a bad script. The movie takes place over two decades and the filmmakers get lost amid all of the characters and subplots. The movie lacks a clear focus. There is no coherent point of view character; the true protagonist of Black Mass is wayward FBI agent John Connolly but it seems as though the filmmakers didn’t understand their script and thought the lead was Bulgar and so the movie is compromised between the two men. As the story of Connolly, the filmmakers miss a lot of the most interesting aspects of his story and there are a lot of fundamental issues to Connolly that aren’t clear. Connolly recruits Bulgar and stands by him out of Bostonian loyalty. What is unclear and never even addressed is whether Connolly began this earnestly with the goal of fighting crime or if he knew what Bulgar would become and orchestrated Bulgar’s rise to power for his own benefit. That’s a potentially fascinating character transformation but it’s completely bungled in the movie. As for Bulgar, the movie does not really visualize the gangster’s rise to power. There are no signs of wealth or prestige that demonstrate how he transforms from a local hood to a national menace. There are several interesting subplots related to Bulgar, such as the death of his young son and Bulgar’s relationship with the IRA, but they don’t lead anywhere. Especially wasted in the relationship between Bulgar and his brother Billy, who was a Massachusetts state senator. Benedict Cumberbatch is poorly cast as Billy Bulgar. He does not look much like Depp, they don’t share any personality quirks, and Cumberbatch seems to sleepwalk through the role, although to be fair the script does not give him much to do. The story of Black Mass is shapeless. It is not leading toward its conclusion and when the film reaches its end the story hasn’t really resolved or affirmed anything.
Bottom Line: Black Mass has some terrific performances but it suffers from too many basic storytelling mistakes. The biography of Whitey Bulgar is one of the great American crime stories but this movie doesn’t do it justice.
Episode: #561 (September 27, 2015)