Critics Corner: Black Mass

Read two critical perspectives on Black Mass, by Eddie Muller and Jeffrey M. Anderson.

BlackMassPoster1Black Mass:  No Empathy

by Eddie Muller

I’m often asked what I consider the essence of a great film noir. My answer is always the same, and has nothing to do with style or technique.

It’s empathy.

The best noir films concern characters willfully doing the wrong thing. Continue reading →

BlackMassPoster2Black Mass: Whitey Stripes

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Believe it or not, Black Mass is the fourth true crime movie starring Johnny Depp, but at least it ranks in the top two. He played 1930s gangster John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), a movie that relied on Depp’s unadorned good looks as well as Mann’s trademark slickness; it was a momentarily distracting movie without much depth. Continue reading →

BlackMassPoster1BLACK MASS: No Empathy

by Eddie Muller

I’m often asked what I consider the essence of a great film noir. My answer is always the same, and has nothing to do with style or technique.

It’s empathy.

The best noir films concern characters willfully doing the wrong thing. They’ve got their reasons, and the subversive purpose of noir is to make the viewer understand why someone would risk everything, breaking the law.

Black Mass, unfortunately, is not a film noir. It could have been, perhaps even a great one, but instead it’s resolutely a gangster film, chronicling the rise and fall of Boston’s notorious Winter Hill gang, using a flashback structure that’s largely dispassionate and aloof. Except, that is, when it zeroes in on the evil malevolence of gang leader James “Whitey” Bulger—then Black Mass becomes something unique and perversely unsettling—a gangster film-horror movie hybrid. As portrayed by Johnny Depp, Bulger is the Devil incarnate, a psychotic manipulator whose notions of loyalty—and his (perhaps) chemically enhanced paranoia—drive him to compulsively murder the suspected traitors in his midst.

The role is pure Best Actor bait, and Depp is mesmerizing. But he has zero shot at winning an Oscar—for the same reason the film ultimately fails to be anything more than a queasy diversion. No empathy. Bulger is a sick, depraved criminal at the start of the film, and he’s a sicker and more depraved criminal at the end, having ruined the lives of every person he’s touched. Watching him is like watching an animal toy with its prey then devour it. Watching that, empathy is not your likely reaction.

The filmmakers try, only half-heartedly, to make John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) the protagonist of the story, which definitely would have made Black Mass more a noir, less a horror show. Connolly was Bulger’s boyhood buddy turned FBI agent; it was his protection of Whitey as a prized informant that gave the small-time Southie crook enough latitude to run-and-gun the Italian mob out of Boston and establish his own vice empire. Connolly’s life—the true story of a man selling his soul to the devil—is the stuff of epic noir tragedy. But every time the opportunity arises for the story to delve deeper in that direction, the filmmakers quickly return to Whitey’s wicked ways—which we have already grasped, early on, when Bulger bloodily beats a stoolie to death with his bare hands. A litany of murder follows—by strangulation, by shotgun, by handgun, by broken neck, by garroting—pretty soon the film feels more like Hostel than Goodfellas. At the film’s most crucial juncture, moral and ethical issues take a backseat to “Who dies next and how bad will it be?”

BlackMass1Joel Edgerton is a major talent, an accomplished writer-director-actor (The Square, Animal Kingdom, The Gift) and it’s not his fault that Connolly’s character gets buried under Depp’s avalanche of sinister charisma. Coincidentally, Depp once played the FBI agent role himself, in the underrated Donnie Brasco (1997), in which he nearly loses his identity after going undercover to infiltrate New York’s Bonanno crime family. Depp had the stuff to hold his own against Al Pacino, who played the Mafia confidante he ultimately betrays. Edgerton, however, can’t compete with Depp’s star-wattage (which provides built-in empathy, whether the character deserved it or not); he needed a more fully conceived and better written character than co-scripters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth were willing, or able, to deliver.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) is so good with actors it almost saves the day. The cast is uniformly great, top to bottom, although it undermines the film’s verisimilitude when familiar faces like Kevin Bacon and Peter Sarsgaard (both good) pop up in small roles. Stylistically, Cooper relies too much on suffocating close-ups—as well as abrupt cuts to long shots and high angles, typically to polish off a scene with a dramatic tableau. The Scorsese influence is prevalent; there are scenes in which not just the wise-guyness, but the camera moves and cutting consciously evoke Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and others. Scorsese, more than any other American director of his generation, expanded the lexicon of film grammar—in the process he unfortunately over-popularized an entire subgenre of films in which stupid mooks cluster in groups to shout “No, fuck you!” at each other. We must take the bitter with the sweet. (Scorsese should sue the TV cop show Public Morals for stylistic plagiarism.)

Sienna Miller’s role as Bulger’s girlfriend Christine Greig was cut entirely, which makes me suspect the filmmakers had intended to broaden and deepen the story, only to be cut off at the knees by the moneymen: a fast-paced gangster-horror hybrid was probably just what they wanted—character studies and moral dilemmas don’t make for boffo box office. Personally, I’d have preferred more screen time for the women in Black Mass, all of whom give indelible performances—before each vanishes completely. A distaff perspective would have been such welcome respite from yet more scenes of guys shouting (albeit with Boston accents) “No, fuck you!” at each other. (Note: the guys in the shitty suits shouting “No, fuck you!” are the good guys; the guys in the horrible pleather jackets shouting “No, fuck you!” are the bad guys.)

BlackMass3

Dakota Johnson, unshackled from Fifty Shades of Grey, makes the most of her two scenes as Lindsey Cyr, the mother of Bulger’s ill-fated son; Mary Klug’s single scene as Bulger’s mother is a highlight; Juno Temple (so vivid in Killer Joe) lights up the screen in her abbreviated appearance (one extended scene, then gone); Julianne Nicholson, as Connolly’s unnerved and angry wife Marianne, gives the movie its moral and emotional core in a few scant moments of screen time, including a dire sequence where she’s sexually menaced by Bulger during a dinner party in her own home. The scene highlights what’s askew with the film; it’s riveting and deeply disturbing, yet ends up having no bearing on the story. Marianne instantly disappears; we don’t know if Connolly ever finds out what happened, or if it would alter his loyalty to Whitey if he did. It serves no dramatic purpose—other than to make the audience squirm.

WheretheBodiesWereBuriedCoverThey’d never stoop to calling such an A-list production The Boston Gangland Massacre — but it wouldn’t have been false advertising.

I’ve resisted comparing the film to the true story of Whitey Bulger and the Winter Hill gang because the filmmakers aren’t obligated to provide a historically accurate account. If you are interested, however, in the facts of this crime saga—specifically how the FBI manufactured, enabled, and protected this psychopathic lunatic — author T. J. English will be hosted by Green Apple Books in San Francisco on October 6 to discuss his latest book, Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him. English, in my estimation, is the finest writer of true crime books working today. I’ll be there to get his take on Whitey’s sordid saga as well as his opinion of Black Mass. See you there.

Horizontal RuleEddieMullerEddie Muller is a writer, filmmaker, and noted noir historian. His books include Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir; Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir; and The Art of Noir: Posters and Graphics from the Classic Film Noir Era. He has recorded numerous audio commentaries for DVD reissues of classic noir films. Muller’s crime fiction debut,  The Distance, was named “Best First Novel” of 2002 by the Private Eye Writers of America. He is co-author of the bestseller  Tab Hunter Confidential. Find Eddie Muller and Noir City at EddieMiller.com.

Horizontal RuleBlackMassPoster2Black Mass: Whitey Stripes

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Believe it or not, Black Mass is the fourth true crime movie starring Johnny Depp, but at least it ranks in the top two. He played 1930s gangster John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), a movie that relied on Depp’s unadorned good looks as well as Mann’s trademark slickness; it was a momentarily distracting movie without much depth. He also played 1970s drug lord George Jung in Ted Demme’s Blow (2001); his hair and makeup were more elaborate, but the movie was flabby and likewise easily forgettable. I’ll talk about the other movie later, but in the meantime, Black Mass takes the right steps. It puts Depp in thick makeup and gives him a heavy Boston accent, and director Scott Cooper restrains himself from too much flash or flab. The result is, if not a great gangster movie, then at least a good one.

BlackMass4Depp plays James Bulger (don’t call him “Whitey”), a mob boss born in 1929 that started out small time, ruling the streets of South Boston, but amassing more and more power in the 1980s. Legend has it that he was involved in just about everything illegal, from murder and drugs to bilking gamblers on “jai alai.” However, two other factors make Bulger a really interesting character. One is that he served as an informant for the FBI for over twenty years, connected to agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood pal. According to Connolly, being a childhood pal in South Boston is the next best thing to being a blood relation. But the movie implies that Bulger really didn’t provide much useful information; rather, that Connolly used the relationship to make a name for himself in the bureau.

The other, even more astounding connection is that Bulger’s younger brother Billy became the president of the Massachusetts senate, or, as the movie terms it, the most powerful man in the state. And yet the brothers are shown having a relaxed breakfast together with their mom, or sharing a Christmas holiday with their families. They are family, and they stay away from each other’s business. If Black Mass has a major flaw, it’s that this brotherly relationship isn’t explored in a more deeply emotional way. But director Cooper, a former actor who guided Jeff Bridges to his first Oscar in Crazy Heart (and earned a nomination for Maggie Gyllenhaal), certainly loves actors and nonetheless fleshes out the movie’s nooks and crannies with rich characters.

Crazy Heart: https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B003IB91FItag=eatd0f-20
Things start out with Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons, “Tod” from Breaking Bad), who gives testimony against Bulger before flashing back to his early days. He’s a bar bouncer who refuses to let in one of Bulger’s pals, gets into a fight and earns Bulger’s respect. Bulger gives him a “test” and then he’s in the gang. Kevin’s narration ends, and his character arc ends. We see his face throughout the rest of the film, we recognize him, and we more or less know who he is and what he’s about. Rory Cochrane is another right-hand man, Dakota Johnson is Bulger’s wife, Kevin Bacon is a pushy FBI man and Adam Scott is a snaky one.

[Place BlackMass5.jpg here]

David Harbour is a crooked FBI man who is on the receiving end of Bulger’s nervy “recipe” harangue, Peter Sarsgaard is particularly excellent as a sweaty, drug-addled hustler, Julianne Nicholson is Connolly’s wife (and has a great, tense confrontation with Bulger), Corey Stoll comes in fairly late as a no-BS lawman who begins to see through Connolly’s story, and Juno Temple is typically outstanding as a young hooker; watch her face as she tries, and fails, to read either pleasure or displeasure in Bulger’s icy stare. (The various Brits and Australians doing Boston accents here are all impressive.)

But it’s Depp’s show. His makeup vaguely resembles what he wore in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), balding and with oversized eyewear, but here his skin appears to be laminated; he has lethal blue eyes and a single brown, crooked tooth. He looks like a shark; he has the ability to mesmerize anyone while he sizes them up and decides their fate. It’s the kind of role Brad Pitt usually gets, but Depp brings a different energy to it. He has more to prove. His Bulger is extremely careful; the movie scales back on all those typical scenes where the newly successful gangster buys clothes and cars, rounds up some hot girls and goes drinking. Bulger seems to always stay true to his roots, though perhaps this is because of his twin personal tragedies, depicted respectfully in the movie. In any case, it’s a very strong performance, and the best Depp has given in some time.

In Black Mass as well as in Cooper’s Crazy Heart and his second film, Out of the Furnace, his handling of performance is his strong suit, with storytelling and other cinematic aspects trailing in a fairly distant second. But this fortunately translates into a low-key movie, one that avoids the alluring trap that filmmakers sometimes fall into: using gangster stories as parables for America itself, often resulting in oversize, overambitious movies inflated far beyond the parameters of their material. Cooper keeps his movie on the small side, and it works all the better for it.

Which brings me to Depp’s final—and best—true crime film, Donnie Brasco (1997). If you’ll remember, he was not the bad guy in that one, but it was also a movie without good guys or bad guys. It was one of the better “undercover cop” movies in which the cop forms a strong bond with the man he’s supposed to bring down, in this case, Al Pacino’s Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero. Written by the former Washington Post film critic Paul Attanasio (who received an Oscar nomination) and directed by Mike Newell, that movie was just rock-solid, never stepping wrong, and focusing on a surprisingly emotional relationship as well as violence and tension.

With Black Mass, Cooper has come closer to something like that than he did in his previous two films, but while he has beautifully filled out his movie, and each of the actors does his or her part, there’s a noticeable lack of strong emotional connection between any two players. It was all there to be played with: Bulger and his brother, Bulger and Connolly, Bulger and his men. They all go through some tough times together, but where and how do the relationships suffer and become stronger? It’s as if Cooper needs to learn to love his characters a little less and learn how to put them through a little more hell.
Horizontal RuleJeffreyMAndersonJeffrey M. Anderson has written about movies professionally since 1997. He writes regularly for the San Francisco Examiner and Common Sense Media. His work as a freelance film critic has appeared in the Oakland Tribune, The Metro (Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper), the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Las Vegas Weekly, FlickNation.net, MacWorld’s online blog TechHive.com, Cinematical.com, Movies.com, Greencine.com, and BayInsider.com. In addition, he maintains his own movie review website, CombustibleCelluloid.com. He holds a master’s degree in cinema, is the co-creator of a movie-matching site and has appeared as an expert on film festival panels, television, and radio. He is also a founding member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

CombustibleCelluloid.com: http://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/

 

 

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