Black Mass – “A competent biography on the Boston underworld but forgettable”

On that fateful night in 1995, as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger packed his bags and left Boston, he never knew he’d make it onto the infamous FBI 10 Most Wanted List.

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Black Mass, the first official cinematic adaptation of the Jimmy Bulger story, unfortunately fails to capture this particular moment. The gangster had the knack to hide undercover for twelve years, after playing both sides by ‘informing’ for the FBI so that they turn a blind eye to his own criminal enterprises. This is a man, so fascinating and nuanced, that Jack Nicholson modelled himself on Bulger in The Departed. It’s inevitable that this won’t be the last telling of the Whitey Bulger story, so what a tragedy that, with Johnny Depp firing on all cylinders, Black Mass only sparkles briefly before collapsing under its own expectation.

Frustratingly, it initially seems writer Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk doesn’t know who’s telling the story. Opening on tough-man goon Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) informing on Bulger, the story shifts to 1975 to introduce Whitey as he murders another man. It then shifts to FBI officer John Connelly (Josh Edgerton) approaching Jimmy’s brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), for information. Strangely, Black Mass then becomes Connelly’s story as he defends Jimmy Bulger to his superiors, while Bulger informs on rival gangs to support the FBI investigations. As Bulger continues to set up deals, murder suspected rats and tease the feds, eventually it all catches up with him as they realise he’s informing to gain immunity and he’s literally getting away with murder on the streets.

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Johnny Depp, playing the Irish charmer of Boston, delivers a truly memorable portrayal but it lacks bite. Directed by Scott Cooper, scenes are supposed to build character but his fearsome menace often plays out as Goodfellas pastiches. In one particular monologue, it couldn’t be more obvious as Depp channels Joe Pesci’s memorable “funny how?” schtick from Scorsese’s classic mob-movie. Relationships feel forced and, in the case of Bulger’s romantic interests, seem to be dropped entirely (Bulger escaped with his girlfriend/wife and remained with her for the twelve years until capture). It’s an electrifying performance, unhinged and wild-eyed as his cold eyes hide behind wide glasses and a tightly-lipped grimace. His small head, atop his thin frame, is like a precariously balanced skull with a blue-eyed stare that’ll keep you up at night. The impressive ensemble cast are all on top form, but they’re never truly given space to breath.

The locations, and the seventies and eighties context is captured smartly. Whitey’s unique dress code (clearly take FBI photos, such as his black turtle-neck) marks him out. His black leather jacket and big glasses are his armour on the streets of Southie. But nothing can make up the failings of the script itself. Denying us the intriguing story of Whitey’s growth in power and control, it veers between Connelly’s family and the non-linear plotting as Bulger’s associates’ rat on him to the feds. The idea of John Connelly and James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, standing on a dock and staring into the mid-distance, is farcical. Even sitting in a church, prior to leaving Boston, is unlikely. He was a malicious, slippery villain who got out of town as soon as the heat was on. The clumsy epilogue information revealing what happened after 1995 seems bent on chastising Flemmi and Weeks noting “they still walk the streets of Boston today”.  The 12 year disappearance of Whitey is almost a superb triumph, proving how skilled he was. Glorifying such a despicable man seems misinformed at best. Black Mass, a competent biography on the Boston underworld, is deeply forgettable, and James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was anything but.

This was originally part of my London Film Festival coverage for Flickering Myth.

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