After his portrayal of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), Johnny Depp returns to the criminal underworld with his take on James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Scott Cooper’s glossy, competent yet strangely unengaging Black Mass (2015). Adapted from the book by Dick Leher, Cooper’s film tells the story of the South Boston criminal leader who, through his connections with the FBI, rose from a small time thug to an out and out king pin. The film begins with local boy Bulger up to nothing much but no good. It’s 1975 and Bulger has been back from a stint in Alcatraz. He has a bar and hands out beatings as he controls petty crime on his own turf.
Local thug Kevin (Jesse Plemons) introduces us to him and at first the film looks like it might take his point of view – a young man’s rise under the shadow of a local legend – but his is only one of many voices that we hear snitching on their former boss in a bid to scale down their own punishments in interspersed flash forwards. Local boy made good and former school pal, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) is a top FBI man and it is his plan that will see Bulger come out on top. With Connolly’s aid, Bulger will work for the FBI as an informant, giving them information specifically on the Italian mafia who are also his rivals in the turf war, and in return will receive something close to immunity.
This pact is brokered partly with the acquiescence of Bulger’s brother, state senator Bill Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch). These close family ties are vital to the closely-knit community. Jimmy has his mother who he will lose to at gin rummy – “Did you learn nothing in prison?” – and a wife and young son, who will tragically die. That loss along with the further loss of his mother later, it is suggested, changes Bulger. However, one of the problems with the movie is there is no discernible arc – Bulger begins a violent thug and ends much the same way. The use of the police interviews with key characters throughout the film also serves to reduce the tension as you get a pretty clear idea early on who makes it out the other end alive and can surmise who doesn’t. These aren’t the only flaws in the screenplay by Jez Butterworth (who wrote the underrated Get On Up) and Mark Mallouk, which persists in having characters say out loud things which we already see happening. “I’m in a vice,” says compromised FBI man, John Morris (David Harbour), when indeed the vice is closing. To show how Bulger helped little old ladies we see him help a little old lady and the women are all introduced in the kitchen and are given very little to do. Bulger’s wife Lindsey (Dakota Johnson) doesn’t seem to have met her husband, let alone have an intimate relationship with him.
Free to expand his nefarious dealings, Jimmy begins to spread out to a deal involving the sport Jai Allai in Miami, but his lack of caution and the interest of a gun-ho prosecutor (Corey Stoll) sees the aforementioned vice begin to close, not only on Bulger, but also Connolly, whose corruption is superbly captured by the swaggering but never quite certain Edgerton. The acting is all good but news of Depp’s comeback might be a little exaggerated. With his complete physical transformation, his Bulger is not that far off from Jack Sparrow or the Mad Hatter. His set piece scenes of threat and intimidation are intensely meant and well done, but there is little nuance here, almost no inner life and physically he just doesn’t look like someone you’d ever see walking down the street. This is a pity because beneath the contact lenses and shaved head there is a good, if not great, actor. Cooper gives us a toned down seventies feel consistent with both the period and the genre, but the soaring score, the meandering storyline and the frequent fades to black are reminiscent of TV. And when we’re talking about gangster and TV, it’s a comparison that cinema will have to do better to live up to. Black Mass is ultimately a decent film with some great parts, but unfortunately it falls short of the canon to which it aspires.
The 72nd Venice Film Festival takes place from 2-12 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.