Johnny Depp and Rory Cochrane in Black Mass.
So. I was saying. About Black Mass. Not a crime story. Not a life and times story. What kind of story is it then? What’s the staw-ree heah? As Boston cops used to be prone to say when they arrived on the scene.
It’s a morality tale. Practically a fable. On a realistic level, it’s the story of a man’s corruption. Symbolically, it’s the story of the deal he made with the devil.
The corrupted man isn’t Whitey Bulger’s. The movie’s Whitey Bulger isn’t corrupt. He’s just plain evil. How he got that way, whether he was born bad or if circumstances made him a criminal isn’t a question the movie bothers to ask. It happened too long ago. He’s evil now and the question is how much more and how much worse evil is he going to do before he’s stopped?
Bulger is the movie’s devil. The corrupted man is that boyhood friend of the Bulger brothers, Whitey Bulger the criminal and Willliam Bulger the politician, who grew up to be an FBI Agent, John Connolly.
That story, Connolly’s story, gives Black Mass its narrative framework. But the movie’s reason for being isn’t to tell a story. It’s to paint a picture. Black Mass is a character study. Johnny Depp and director Scott Cooper have collaborated to paint a portrait of evil.
That’s what Black Mass is about. Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger.
I mentioned how once upon a time without knowing what it was I had lunch at one of Whitey Bulger’s favorite hangouts in South Boston, Triple O’s Lounge. I said there was a real possibility Whitey was there when I was there without my knowing it. He and some of his lieutenants could have been planning crimes over beers at a nearby table, I wouldn’t have recognized him.
If you’ve seen photos of the real Whitey Bulger and of Depp in the part, you’ve probably been awed by the uncanny resemblance. In which case, you’re probably asking, “How could you not have recognized that guy, Lance? That’s someone who’d definitely have made an impression!”
Answer is, I don’t think I had even the vaguest idea what Bulger looked like, but even if I did and if I saw him in person, I don’t think he’d have made that kind of an impression.
I don’t remember his picture or even his name being in the papers much. The news was full of the doings and undoings of other criminals, mainly Italians, who were featuring in stories about their arrests by the FBI. The Bureau was working from information they got from Whitey Bulger, that fact, of course, being never mentioned. And there were stories about crimes Bulger and his gang were committing and pictures of their victims. But his name was left out. The way those stories were reported it could seem they weren’t committed by anybody. The reason for Bulger’s lack of publicity we know now is that the FBI was protecting him, literally letting him get away with murder in exchange for his help bringing other murderers and criminals to justice.
It would have depended on who was with him, of course, and how people were acting around him. A guy surrounded by obvious goons and thugs would stand out. So would someone most other people in a room went out of their way to steer clear off or, just the opposite, made too much of a show of going up to say hello to, how ya doin’, Jimmy---and, by the way, you never called him Whitey to his face, if you knew what was good for you. You called him by his real name. Jimmy. Which I didn’t know at the time. His real name or that he went by it. But all by himself, the real Whitey Bulger wasn’t such that you looked at him and thought right away, there’s a scary guy.
From the pictures and video clips I’ve seen since, the real Whitey Bulger came across like any of a thousand other blue collar neighborhood types you sat next to on the T or found yourself waiting in line with to buy tickets on game days at Fenway...or may have happened to notice occupying a nearby table at a corner bar. If he carried himself with more authority than the average working stiff, if he seemed more thoughtful, more observant, smarter than everybody else around him, you might have thought he was a foreman at a factory or maybe owned his own small contracting business. That’s what you saw. Depp plays him as he was. You wouldn’t see him as he was until the moment he decided he was going to hurt you.
I had to look hard to find Depp in there. It’s not just that he’s disguised by the make-up, prosthetics, contacts, and wig. He’s disguised from within. Everything about him is different. Different kind of pent-up energy. Explosive not antic. Different kind of thoughtfulness. Calculating not deliberative. Different kind of watchfulness. Opportunistic not curious. And he imbues Bulger with a very different kind of innate sadness. All Depp characters, who aren't mad as hatters, are sad at heart. They recognize that for most people life is full of sorrow and pain and he feels a saint-like pity for them. As Depp plays him, Bulger seems to suffer bouts of existential despair as if he’s suddenly overcome by his own emptiness and the meaningless of it all. It doesn’t make him feel the least bit of pity for anyone. It just makes him mad.
Bulger isn’t a sociopath. He’s not a savage. He’s not really even a villain, that is, he’s not consciously evil. I’d call him a psychopath, which is probably an accurate description of the real Whitey Bulger, but it seems too reductive and easy for what Depp is portraying.
His Bulger is a beast. His motives are more like animal instincts. He’s someone who very early in life decided to live by rules based on an animal’s sense of how the world is divided---between me and mine and food.
“You wanna take your shot, Tommy? Take your shot. But make it your fucking best. 'Cause I get up, I eat you.”
Of course he’s not being literal, but there is a way in which it can be taken literally. He turns on you and you’re dead meat. But there’s more to it. He turns on you, you suddenly find yourself no longer part of him and his, and if you aren’t part of him and his, then you only exist to help him and his survive and thrive. In that effort, you’re either a useful partner or you’re there to be used. If you’re not useful in either way, then a hindrance, an obstacle, or a threat. Or you’re nothing.
Nothing may be the most dangerous category to find yourself in.
Nothing can be disposed of without a thought or a qualm.
Scenes that show his love for his young son, his devotion to his mother, his affection for his brother and his brother’s family, his kindness towards his favorite old grade school teacher don’t humanize in the usual movie “Maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all” way. They make him even more frightening.
The intensity of his loyalty to those he feels deserve it suggests how hard it would be to deserve it in his eyes and how easy it would be to have it snatched away and how fast that would happen, as fast as the swipe of a paw. Or the pull of a trigger, the looping of a length of rope, the reaching out of hand for a throat.
It’s a fierce and fearsome performance and makes for a chilling portrait of evil.
The problem with making a portrait the center of a movie is that portraits imply stories rather than tell them.
There’s not much a story to tell about Bulger’s criminality, anyway. There are stories. Really, anecdotes. His crimes, including his murders, vicious as they were, were banal. They were mostly opportunistic or impulsive, things he decided on the spot needed to be done as routine matters of business or because he felt like it at the moment. In Black Mass, they aren’t portrayed as pieces of a grand scheme or as steps on a descent deeper and deeper into hell. They’re simply episodes. And Bulger doesn’t change. He doesn’t even grow more evil. He is what he is, in episode after episode.
This is where Special Agent Connolly enters the picture. There’s definitely a story to tell about him. And in outline it’s a classic. I called it a fable. I could call it a myth. We’ve heard it a thousand times in a thousand different iterations. A good man sells his soul to the devil. A hero falls from grace.
But there’s a problem here too.
It’s hard to tell an emotionally compelling story about a man who sells his soul if that man doesn’t seem to have a soul that’s worth saving. We can’t mourn hero’s fall from grace if he doesn’t appear to have been in God’s graces to begin with or to have been much of a hero.
I can’t testify to the state of the real John Connolly’s soul at the time. In the movie, it’s hard to tell if even has one. As for his being a hero, if he was it was only in his being good at his job which was to put villains in jail, and Black Mass glosses over that.
Black Mass tells Connolly’s story but it doesn’t make him somebody whose story is worth caring about for two hours.
Connolly is played by Joel Edgerton with the too obviously forced charm of a not naturally charming man who has spent a lot of time studying real charmers and thinks he’s learned their secret. In actuality, he’s not so much charming as ingratiating. He’s a flatterer, a wheedler, and something of an emotional bully---he has a knack for picking up on others’ points of vanity and weakness and hammering on them. He’s also quite taken with himself and he assumes people he meets will naturally share his self-regard. This works often enough, but he’s so self-satisfied that he doesn’t believe it when it doesn’t and keeps at it even after it’s clear that instead of charming someone he’s annoying them or when he should see they’ve got him figured out and are using his own vanity against him.
In the movie, as it happened in real life, Connolly recruits Whitey as an informant to help the Bureau bring down the Boston Mafia. As the deal works out, it’s more the case that Bulger has recruited Connolly and through him the FBI to help him get rid of the Italian mobsters who are muscling in on his business and to help him then take over some of theirs.
In exchange for information that turns out to be available through other sources, Connolly, with the acquiescence of several of his fellow agents, covers up for Bulger and his gang as their crimes increase in frequency and violence and they expand their operations. In the process, Connolly becomes something of an honorary member of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang and begins to enjoy the perks of being a wiseguy. As time passes, he grows to look and act more like a movie gangster than Bulger and any of his crew.
Edgerton is especially good at showing this. His eyes narrow. His mouth gets smaller and pouty, his cheeks puffier and flabby. He preens in his increasingly more expensive and better tailored suits. Even his haircuts express increasing corruption. We don’t see him do it, but Edgerton gives the impression that Connolly spends a lot of time in front of the mirror combing his hair.
It’s interesting to watch, to a point. It doesn’t make Connolly himself interesting. As good a job as Edgerton does, he’s not given much to work with. As he’s written, Connolly is a fairly ordinary man. He’s good-humored but not witty. He’s intelligent but not especially so and there’s no poetry in him. He’s an Irishman with no gift for Blarney. He doesn’t have the eloquence to tell us what’s going on inside him in an interesting way, not that there is much going on in there. He doesn’t appear to have an inner life. He doesn’t even seem to have a conscience.
He’s a superficial man, and that’s how Edgerton is left by director Scott Cooper to play him, as all surface.
The only intriguing thing about him is his friendships with Whitey Bulger and Whitey’s brother Billy, who was more than just a successful local politician, he was the president of the Massachusetts State Senate. Connolly seems to know this about himself but it’s a fact about him not a key to his character. It’s possible that the seed of his corruption was a sense of self-importance derived from his friendship with the Bulger and that his ambition is to be as admired, respected, and feared in his field as the Bulgers are in theirs. But that’s up to us to read into Edgerton’s performance. It’s not something the movie shows or makes use of.
Connolly is corrupted early in the story, and what we get to watch is him growing more steadily and less subtly corrupt. But whether he’s corrupted by vanity, ambition, greed, or a combination of all three, we don’t get to know.
This brings me back to what I was getting at in my first Black Mass post. Boston doesn’t figure much in the movie, either as background or as a part of the characters’ lives. Like I said, Bulger doesn’t seem to live in Boston. He just operates there. And we don’t even get to see how his operations work or how they affect---hurt---people, which they certainly did.
We hear that he’s worried about his vending machine racket. We don’t see him or his thugs terrorizing bar and restaurant owners into putting his machines in their establishments. Back then, you bought a pack of cigarettes from a machine, you were putting money in Whitey Bulger’s pocket.
We hear he’s into drug dealing. We don’t see the high school kids he made some of his best customers.
The only people he hurts on screen are other criminals. The closest to an innocent is only innocent in being too dumb to understand the immorality and criminality of what they’re involved in.
As for Connolly, it’s not just the people and culture of South Boston that are missing from his story. The people and culture of his professional life are absent to. The FBI is just the institution he works for. The other agents who appear as characters are there as foils or supporting players in his personal drama. The fact that it wasn’t just that Connolly was personally corrupt. The FBI’s informant program had been covering up the crimes of informants for years before Connolly recruited Bulger. According to T.J. English in Where the Bodies Were Buried, agents even helped frame several innocent men for a murder they knew one of their informants had committed and they did it with the approval of J. Edgar Hoover.
What this means for Black Mass is that Bulger and Connolly are pretty much seen as isolated cases. The movie is about them and only about them and other characters are there just to give Depp and Edgerton something to play off of besides just each other. And, while Depp’s Bulger is fascinating, he’s not dramatically compelling in that he changes or takes us or other characters anywhere, and, like I said, although his story does go somewhere and Edgerton does some fine work portraying him, Connolly just isn’t all that interesting.
This doesn’t mean that Depp and Edgerton might as well be alone on screen or that their performances are all there is to keep us watching. There are many fine actors making the most of their generally underwritten parts.
As Whitey’s brother Billy, Benedict Cumberbatch is mostly used as a ironic commentary on the self-servingness and opportunism of all politicians. But he’s charming and slick and convincing both as a certain type of politician and the “good” brother with enough of a heart and modicum of conscience that people looking at the two Bulgers might think basic decency was a family trait. You could see how people might think, How bad can Jimmy be if he’s got a brother like Billy who loves him?, instead of asking how honest can Billy be if he’s got a brother he loves like Jimmy?
And Brian Sarsgaard has an impressive extended cameo as a business associate of one of Bulger's businesses associates, a very tightly wound psychopath named Brian Halloran who seems always about to come unwound in an instant with a very loud SPROING! and collaterally damaging shower of broken springs. Halloran has such poor control over his emotions he feels them all at once and is simultaneously on the verge of breaking into a fit of giggles and bursting into tears. This makes him somewhat unreliable as a criminal henchman to the point that Bulger feels he has to pay him not to kill someone Bulger wants killed. There's more method to Bulger's decision, but basically he's concerned not that Halloran won't get the job done but he'll get it done in a way bound to lead the police right to him and he'll point them straight to Bulger. Sarsgaard makes Halloran a compelling blend of pathetic and maddeningly annoying. We feel sorry for him and at the same time can’t wait to see him get what he's afraid is coming to him.
Black Mass’ depiction of Bulger’s right-hand man, Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi isn’t strictly in accordance with the facts. In the movie, he’s the closest Whitey has to a real friend and his reason for being seems to be to look out for him. Rory Cochrane plays him with a mournful-eyed watchfulness that seems to be both professional and sympathetic. He’s far from a decent guy but he is doing the world one little bit of good by caring about Whitey enough to want to help keep his violence and rage in check if only so he doesn’t wind up in jail or dead. In reality, Flemmi wasn’t a friend. He was just a business partner and possibly the senior partner. Their relationship was as Flemmi says in the movie, “strictly criminal.” Cochrane delivers the line with the sense of disappointment of someone realizing too late he’d been fooled and was being used. But the real Flemmi wasn’t fooled and if he was being used by Bulger, he knew it and was using Bulger back.
Kevin Bacon appears as Connolly’s boss at the Bureau, the kind of tough and demanding boss whose vanity and ambition are always undermining his own efforts. David Harbour plays Connolly’s partner in handling Bulger as a get along-go along type who is weakened and corrupted by his too eager desire to be liked by everyone, even criminals like Whitey Bulger.
Julianne Nicholson is at first brittlely cheerful and then even more brittlely sad and angry as Connolly’s wife Marianne who enters the movie seeming afraid she’s not good enough for him and leaves it knowing he’s decided she’s right and he’s ready to trade up. Dakota Johnson as Lindsey Cyr, Bulger’s common law wife and the mother of his young son, stakes a claim on the place Jennifer Lawrence appears to be abandoning as the best young character actress now working as Lawrence seems to be forgetting how to play characters as themselves and not as Jennifer Lawrence trapped in an alternative universe. Johnson plays Cyr as so much a real person that the only clue she’s really just a movie star acting is that she happens to be in the same scenes as Johnny Depp.
Juno Temple is the right mixture of pathetic and infuriating as a prostitute who for all we know may have a heart of gold but who unfortunately and undeniably has a brain of mush. Corey Stoll plays a federal prosecutor whose complete honesty and utter incorruptability are demonstrated by his irritability and impatience. W. Earl Brown gives a chillingly deadpan performance as a thoroughly professional, totally unperturbable, and supremely competent hitman. And Jesse Plemmons impressed me as Bulger’s junior henchman Kevin Weeks by having one of the most true to life Boston accents I’ve ever heard in a movie. Those guys I knew back in Boston who knew guys? That’s how they sounded.
All good reasons to see Black Mass. Mainly though it’s to see Edgerton and Depp. And mainly Depp.
Depp spent his forties, which is to say most of his prime, playing live-action cartoon characters, which is fine because it gave us Captain Jack Sparrow but it didn’t give us many good movies besides the first Pirates of the Caribbean. (You could argue that Depp’s best movie in the thirteen years since Pirates of the Caribbean was an actual cartoon. Rango.) It will be nice if Black Mass marks the beginning of a decade of his being a male successor to Meryl Streep, our greatest chameleon of a movie star, who I think of as a portraitist who uses herself as her canvass.
Portraits in themselves don’t tell stories but they can certainly command attention.
Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper, screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jezz Butterworth. Based on the book Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, David Harbour, Juno Temple, Corey Stoll, and W. Earl Brown. Rated R. Now available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon.