KILLING THEM WITH BLUE EYES
by Anthony Zangrillo
The anticipation surrounding Black Mass could rival a mid-level summer release. Centered on the fascinating true story of Boston Mafia Kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger, Warner Bros., Scott Cooper, and Johnny Depp have crafted a fascinating character study. Amid a row of box office flops, the charismatic Johnny Depp graces the silver screen with a tour-de-force performance. Director Cooper manages to capture the essence of the intense, yet likable gangster. At any given moment, Whitey may help a lady cross the street or strangle an informant with his bare hands. The utter unpredictable and volatile state of this criminal mastermind provides an interesting arsenal for Depp to utilize in his Oscar-worthy performance.
In fact, the film even manages to elevate scenes revealed in the initial trailer. The nerve-wrenching scene involving a sinister Whitey seemingly threatening a man for easily giving up a family recipe enticed audiences in the teaser for the film. Yet context adds an entirely new level of trepidation. Ultimately, the whole scene should come off as a cliche, but the facts surrounding this encounter further develop the enigmatic monster Whitey Bulger.
While Depp shines, Cooper soars. Every creative decision informs the plot and furthers the film’s unholy cast. For instance, early on, Jimmy and his gang load up in a car to presumably cause some mayhem against Boston’s other crime families. Yet something feels amiss and the audience can suspect a deadly swerve. Cooper subliminally informs viewers of Jimmy’s dastardly plan by shifting the camera ever so slightly as it begins to pan back. Finally, the shot’s perspective embodies the back window. Viewers have entered Jimmy’s world and remain confined by it. Perceptive watchers know what will happen in the next few minutes, yet they are powerless to stop it.
Indeed, Cooper demands much from audiences. Those willing to perceive every detail and every nuance in Depp’s performance shall reap immense rewards. In one scene, an ally attempts to pay off Jimmy in a public restaurant. This incompetent, yet sincere action has unexpected and dire consequences. While this review will not spoil the conclusion of this encounter, attention should be drawn to Depp’s portrayal of Jimmy’s unorthodox, yet methodical mind. Jimmy can not just act. He needs to think five moves ahead of his allies and his enemies. Everyone in his crew has moved onto a new topic of discussion, but Jimmy must tie up loose ends.
The film beautifully foreshadows every element of the film. Black Mass does not have to flat out explain Jimmy’s plan. Time and again, Jimmy struggles with his hypocritical sense of loyalty. By the end, no one should be surprised by the closeted coward’s conclusion. Shockingly, even the movie’s title has a payoff. Before the credits roll, audiences should appreciate the ironic symbolism of the film’s title (even though some church scenes over emphasize Jimmy’s supposed conflict).
Notably, the film creates a messy tone, which complements the erratic Whitey perfectly. By the first act’s conclusion, an emotional gut-wrenching punch will make you sympathize with Bulger. Jimmy is a father and a son. These two statements distinguish Jimmy from Whitey. At one time, the gangster would remain content with small-time crime. Yet tragedy after tragedy incites the Whitey persona. The government knowingly unleashes this mad dog to prey on Boston and its citizens. Culminating in visceral, but deemphasized displays of violence, extortion of local business and proliferation of drugs near Boston’s youth enshrine the legacy of the devilish blue eyes.
The real tragic figure of this tale concerns John Connolly. Just a small time kid trying to make a name for himself in the FBI, Joel Edgerton perfectly exemplifies the corrupt, but loyal agent. His alliance with Boston’s underbelly resembles smoke and mirrors. Connolly starts more fires then he puts out, causing his whole life to crumble beneath his feet. Yet Connolly never falters. Until his final punishment, he remains determined to fulfill his promises and reap the rewards of his work. A minor gripe, Edgerton slightly overplays the scrappy FBI agent; however Connolly may have honestly been that charismatic. Still, Edgerton’s performance never crosses into psychotic territories, but a reserved Connolly would probably achieve a more grounded take on the unholy alliance.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from glaring problems. Black Mass lacks strong female representation. The only notable female Lindsay Cyr (Dakota Johnson) fulfills her role of humanizing the sordid criminal Whitey, but Cyr vanishes from the script shortly after. Additionally, the screenplay maintains a veil of secrecy behind the mystery of Whitey. The relationship between Whitey and his politician brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) resemble a fraudulent arms-length transaction. Hints of moral indifference run rampant in the local politician’s office, but the film never implicates Billy’s involvement in or approval of his brother’s illegalities. Merely the family messenger, legal conflicts have likely prevented Cooper from dissecting this powerful relationship.
Despite these flaws, the supporting cast as a whole is tremendous. Kevin Bacon portrays a composite of different FBI chiefs with a sufficient level of gruff, bureaucratic crass. The “bulldog” district attorney Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) steals a few scenes in the film’s final act. Indeed, Wyshak represents the closest thing to a hero the film can muster. Peter Sarsgaard puts in a strong performance as the eccentric Brian Halloran. In addition, a litany of stars including Adam Scott, Jesse Plemons, and David Harbour comprise the ranks of Black Mass’s stellar supporting cast.
Ultimately, Black Mass is a tremendous artistic accomplishment. Art rises the basic level of entertainment and causes viewers to question larger issues like ambiguous morality, government assisted crimes, and the limits of loyalty. Yet Black Mass raises these questions in a subtle influx of plot and character development aided by camera angles and expositions of brutal, yet muted violence. The total level of apathy and disgust Whitey demonstrates physically propels the movie toward its end. Black Mass exhibits the strength of character-centric crime dramas, while revitalizing the waning career of a Hollywood star.