Black Mass Feature

Black Mass Review: Who Cares Why People Do What They Do?

Friday, September 25, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Black Mass

Director: Scott Cooper
Writers: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Dakota Johnson
Rating: Two stars out of five
Available in theaters now.

Reality and, by extension, historical documents require a certain level of sticking to the facts. Dates, names, and incidents should be kept straight, particularly when trying to determine guilt or innocence in a court of law. Movies, on the other hand, even (especially?) those “based on a true story,” don't have to be so strict. In fact, they are incentivized by the rules of drama to eschew some of the clunky facts in order to get to the emotional heart of the message they are trying to convey, because the fact that something occurred does not make it interesting. Why it happened is the important thing.

Black Mass tries to get at that emotional heart by sticking to something resembling the facts, and it does not work.

That is because it loses sight of motivation, or rather, never understands why motivation is required. At no point does the film make clear why anyone, particularly protagonist Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, played in garish funeral home makeup by Johnny Depp, would want any part of the life they have chosen for themselves. The undead look of Depp's Bulger extends to the tone of the movie surrounding it, as there is no sense of satisfaction, joy, fun, accomplishment he gets out of building a criminal empire in South Boston with the help of a childhood pal (Joel Edgerton) in the FBI. Black Mass does not need to be Goodfellas, all celebratory of gangster culture and the go-go fun times of pulling one over on The Man. But it could learn a thing or two from the Martin Scorsese classic about point of view and imbuing characters with desire from the start. “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” are the first words out of Goodfellas protagonist Henry Hill's mouth. Black Mass never gives any clue as to what drives Bulger to do the things he does. He does them, according to the messages being sent by the movie, just because.

That muddled and/or nonexistent reason for being extends to almost everyone in the narrative, not just Bulger. Edgerton's John Connolly, the crooked and ambitious FBI agent, says his reason for helping Bulger is because of how good Bulger was to him as a kid and he is loyal. But he never says what Bulger did that was good for him as a youth, and the movie makes a point of him not saying it as if it's a badge of honor and something the audience can not possibly understand.

The script shortchanges so many fine performers, including Depp and Edgerton, but also Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger's younger brother, a Massachusetts state senator who (wink wink) may or may not have had a hand in protecting Jimmy over the years, Dakota Johnson as the mother of Bulger's son, and the two main henchmen characters played by Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons.

The Plemons character particularly makes no sense, as the film opens with him narrating via plea deal about how he got started with the Bulger gang. It appears he will be the viewer's surrogate for the duration, but after a quick and violent introduction – again with no mention of what drives him to want this position – he fades to the background, never to return in any resonant or logical way. He gets the brunt of the “reveal” that Bulger has been informing for the FBI in exchange for protection, but not 20 minutes of screen time earlier was Plemons's character present on a working vacation with the corrupt FBI agents in cahoots with Bulger.

Cochrane represents Black Mass's one opportunity to instill anything resembling a motivational push, as he gets an onscreen emotional betrayal. It is hastily and clumsily set up, as the impetus of the betrayal is only mentioned a couple minutes before the incident occurs, but there's a nugget of intriguing, connecting empathy contained within it. Cochrane's character is the one who should form the narration skeleton of the movie because of the double-cross, but is replaced by Plemons for seemingly no reason other than maybe that's the order it happened in the real investigation that led to the crackdown on Bulger's gang and sent ol' Whitey on the run for decades.

Director Scott Cooper at least shoots Black Mass in a fairly handsome fashion, using slow dolly push-ins and pull-outs to act as fly-on-the-wall intrusions on the inner workings of a criminal enterprise. Cooper knows how to compose a shot and telegraph a sequence as a competent craftsman, but the interior reasoning that should be generating the visual drama is not present. It is surface-level and too quick to get to the “good stuff,” the shootouts and stranglings, without turning the screws of tension long enough to make those moments land with any real impact. Part of the lack of visual connection lies in the overdone makeup on Depp, making him look like a greasy and balding snow zombie. The contact lenses he wears are seas of empty blueness, as if the black of his pupils don't exist. He's a nightmarish German Expressionism villain plopped in a world of dumpy character actors who look exceedingly like the unhinged barflies they are portraying. It's a juxtaposition that goes a step or 30 too far, with the exception of one strong scene at a dinner table when Bulger plays a “joke” on an FBI agent as a power play.

When an audience cannot comprehend a history book's worth of characters' motivations, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to be transported by the movie they are in. Black Mass fails on that front and, despite some surface thrills and a cast trying their hardest to carry a hulk of pointlessness on their backs, it becomes a snooze.

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