There’s an intense scene in Scott Cooper’s gangster film “Black Mass” that does a great job of encapsulating Irish mob boss James “Whitie” Bulger’s (Johnny Deep) outlook on life and depicting his general intimidating demeanor. Bulger, along with his right hand man Steve Flemmi, (Rory Cochrane) F.B.I. Agent John Connolly, (Joel Edgerton) and another F.B.I. Agent John Morris (David Harbour) are eating steak dinner, having a good time. Bulger casually asks Morris (who cooked the steaks) what the recipe is. Morris doesn’t answer at first, saying it’s a “family recipe” but then after Bulger asks a few more times Morris reveals it. Suddenly Bulger becomes dead serious, zeroing in on Morris with his buggy eyes and, in his soft voice, berates the agent about loyalty and how he easily gave up a family recipe. The color drains from Morris’ face and it seems like Bulger is going to smash his face in. A beat or two later and Bulger breaks into laughter, saying he was “joking.”
But beneath those cackles we know that he’s not joking. For Bulger, loyalty isn’t a laughing matter and up until now we’ve seen again and again how he deals with people who aren’t trustworthy…and it isn’t pretty.
Black Mass” is an elegantly made period crime film that’s all about loyalty-- how important it is to Bulger and how ruthless he can be towards people who aren’t. Organized crime is built on a combination of loyalty and fear; in forming and expanding your gang you need people you can count on and when someone gets out of line or backstabs you, you have to make an example of them, a gesture that instills some level of fear in the rest of your outfit and keeps them in line. This example-making extends to the community and non-gang members as well; if a civilian witnesses a cold blooded murder they’ll keep their mouth shut, either out of respect for the gang members or out of fear of getting killed. Scene after scene, Cooper’s film essentially comes down to: are you loyal to Bulger or not? Yes? Great, you get to keep on living. No? Well expect a bullet to the head or a rope around the neck. The film doesn’t shy away from showing us the graphic, disturbing details of Bulger’s wrath; basically every act of violence comes back to the question of loyalty.
Unlike, say, the lively, black comedic swaggering of a Martin Scorsese gangster film (“Goodfellas”) “Black Mass” is cold and unsettling; Masonobu Takayanigi’s cinematography is gloomy, almost apocalyptic. There are some funny wisecracks every now and then but it doesn’t look like fun. Not that gangster films are supposed to look “fun” to us but the characters, for the most part, don’t look like they’re having much fun being gangsters, as if they’re permanently on edge. Will Bulger kill me for something I did? What did I do?
And frankly I don’t blame them. Bulger is a psychopath. With his slim stature, pale sickly skin and thinning hair, he looks like the cold remorseless monster he is. Bulger isn’t flamboyant or showy and he certainly isn't charming. Instead he’s calm and methodical, never becoming overly animated in times of anger and not above taking out his own trash. The opening scene where he gets mad at an associate for eating nuts and sticking his wet fingers back into the nut bowl shows how highly observant he is of other people’s behaviors. He often looks like he’s deep in thought. Thinking about his next move. Thinking about who might betray him next and how he might kill that person. At the same time Bulger is extremely selfish—cherishing loyalty but only loyalty towards him. Depp’s Bulger is chilling and eccentric yet also measured and understated; the character never verges into hammy territory. After playing nothing but zany cartoon characters (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) for the last few years it’s nice to see him tackle real, compelling characters again (he’s good at it).
Edgerton is also strong as Connolly (who forms an alliance with Bulger in order to take down the rival Italian Mafia). Overall Connolly is a decent guy who’s morally conflicted—trapped between an obligation to perform his duties as a government agent and his admiration for Bulger. The two grew up in the same neighborhood together so he feels a connection to the malicious criminal, causing him to define his own notions of what’s right and wrong. It’s a great character that’s in some ways more compelling than Bulger; Bulger is a bad guy and knows it but Connolly wants to believe he’s doing good things.
“Black Mass” falters when it wants to be a grand, ensemble gangster epic. Bulger and Connolly emerge as the only three-dimensional characters. Meanwhile the supporting characters (played by an array of immensly talented actors like Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s politician brother, Corey Stoll as a no nonsense DA, Jesse Plemons as a budding young enforcer in Bulger's gang or Peter Sarsgaard as a wirey drug addict) have great moments but overall their characters sort of fade into the background. Like a lot historical biopics, “Black Mass” bites off a little more than it can chew--trying to cram a rich, nearly ten year story with lots of colorful characters into a feature lenghth film. More than once the movie loses focus.
Also, for all the years that are covered (nineteen seventy five to the mid eighties) we don't learn that much about Bulger and how his Winterhill gang actually came to power in the first place. The script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth glosses over the “business” side of Bulger’s outfit (how they maintain control over South Boston) and his progression from smalltime crook to top dog is treated somewhat vaguely. "Black Mass" wants to be a traditional rise and and fall gangster epic but we don't see much of Bulger's rise or fall. It's really only about Bulger and Connolly and their years long alliance.
Even so, I can't say I had a totally unpleasant time during the film. As a crime epic, Cooper doesn't quite pull it off, but as a dark violent character study about a ruthless man who takes loyalty very seriously and his pact with a morally divided F.B.I agent, it's watchable. Also, as a vehicle for Depp and Edgerton’s heavy weight performances, “Black Mass” succeeds tremendously.