Monday, September 21, 2015

Black Mass (2015)

Directed by: Scott Cooper
Runtime: 2hrs 2mins

"Black Mass" is the story of James 'Whitey' Bulger whose criminal activity in the 1970's was enabled and protected by FBI agent John Connolly in exchange for wire taps that helped them bring down the Italian Mafia. 

This adaptation by "Crazy Heart" director Scott Cooper is something of a mixed bag. It's unique combination of the gangster genre and the horror genre is an element that works for the most part. Yet generally most of what's good about "Black Mass" comes down to the performances. Depp in particular is great. But this film stumbles in all the familiar places most biopics or "true stories" do in that it bites off more than it can chew. There's simply too much to tell and to little time to do it in. The result is that much of the film feels rushed and many of the characters feel underdeveloped or completely forgotten.

Bulger's henchmen as well as a slew of FBI agents are all played well by a handful of recognizable faces including Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, W. Earl Brown and Bill Camp. Yet they all feel underdeveloped as Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth's screenplay have them pop in and out of the story fairly willy-nilly. Notably underdeveloped and inaccurately portrayed as a sympathetic figure is Bulger's right hand man Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). He was by all accounts every bit as psychotic as Bulger (if not more so, he was after all the guy that removed their victim's teeth, an act which is thankfully not shown).

If you've followed any of this story you'll know most of what you see. You'll marvel at Depp not doing Depp and you'll leave with little else. The opening and a few flash forwards (the film is told as a flashback) show a few of Bulger's inner circle telling their story, now that they're in custody. Yet it is never really used very effectively as a story telling device. These witnesses don't do much in terms of voice overs and these small vignettes feel wasted. They're throwaway transitions that cover up jumps in time. It's as if they were meant to allow for creative license with the story and the freedom to summarize details rather than show them. Worse yet Weeks and Flemmi, two of Bulger's inner circle feel wasted. They're not given many scenes and what few there are, don't lead us to much in the way of character. It's dissatisfying just how lackluster the film's attempts to establish the Winter Hill Gang and their operation really is.

The story establishes Bulger as a friend to the community in South Boston and a doting father, even if his fatherly advice is more violent than most would like. While interacting with his Winter Hill Gang henchmen he's shown to be a tough no nonsense leader, but it isn't until later in the film that he and his gang start to seem truly terrifying. His motivations for becoming such a terrifying person is somewhat inaccurately portrayed as the loss of his son and mother. Bulger was by all accounts as much a killer before their deaths as he was after. Nevertheless it's a piece of Hollywood scripting that makes sense here.

Yet the bigger story is how Bulger's criminal activity was enabled by the FBI, particularly by agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly was a friend of the Bulger brothers when growing up in Southie, and feels he owes allegiance to Jimmy after Jimmy stood up for him and protected him when he was a kid (this is told rather than shown). That debt is repaid with an alliance between the FBI and the Winter Hill Gang in which Bulger and his operation is protected and allowed to continue uninterrupted so long as Bulger feeds them information that would allow them to take down his biggest competition, the Italian Mafia.

Depp's performance is the thing that makes this film worth watching. His pale face, makeup that seems to give him dark sunken cheeks, slicked back hair with receding hairline, his seemingly glowing eyes and exaggerated mangle of discolored teeth give him more an appearance of a ghoul than a real person. His upturned collar, crossed arms and effortless floating walk combined with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi's tendency to frame him in silhouette and dim lighting frequently remind of F.W. Murnau's vampirical tale "Nosferatu."

The portrayal of Bulger is in every way that of a literal monster. It is particularly effective in a handful of later scenes, in particular one in which he eats dinner with Flemmi and FBI agents Connolly and Morris. The scene became the most effective moment in the trailer as well. Yet even more terrifying is the following scene in which he "checks" on Connolly's reluctant wife who had hidden herself away in their bedroom rather than interact with him.

Yet Connolly himself is an equally disturbing figure, but for different reasons. He's supposed to be the good guy. He's an FBI agent intent on taking down the Mafia, yet the atrocities he allowed and defended by giving false testimony and hiding evidence from within the FBI makes him truly disturbing. However his obvious attempts at hiding things and redirecting the FBI's attention elsewhere seems almost laughably hard to believe if it hadn't been the way things really happened. Perhaps it's the performance by Joel Edgerton, but Connolly is rather unconvincing in his lies when pressed by his FBI superiors.

Yet the FBI's turning a blind eye on the actions of one criminal because of their participation in taking down another criminal, and the toll hiding all of these underhanded deeds take on the people of Southie is the biggest talking point of this real life story. In fact it was the main point of Joe Berlinger's documentary from last year "Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger." Yet "Black Mass" remains surprisingly noncommittal about whether or not Bulger was indeed an informant and the degree to which the FBI as an organization had their hands dirty in all of this.

The filmmakers also failed in their due diligence while crafting this story. According to the real Kevin Weeks (who was portrayed in the film by Jesse Plemons) the filmmakers behind "Black Mass" did not consult with anyone from the inner circle while making the film. That would explain the film's inaccuracies which he explained to The Daily Beast after seeing the film himself.

Rather than taking on the real issues of the true story the film takes on the more general issue of gang violence in a package that feels an obvious attempt by director Scott Cooper to channel Martin Scorsese's brand of gangster film. As such there's an ample amount of F-words and tough guys threatening other tough guys because of perceived slights that wounded their considerable pride. Many of these things Weeks himself explained is not consistent with the real people.

What we don't see is the Winter Hill Gang's operation. It is, rather, about witnessing Depp's performance as Bulger in smaller moments and how Connolly would eventually be caught. It glosses over how Bulger came to lead the Winter Hill Gang and how he evaded capture for years until his eventual arrest in 2011. We stay mostly removed from Bulger throughout the film. We witness his deeds without gaining insight whatsoever. Perhaps that was the right choice. You can't, or rather shouldn't, understand and sympathize with a man like Bulger. As such the decision to portray him as a monster of legend rather than sticking to reality starts to make more sense.

As we know Hollywood tends to embellish the facts of true stories in order to create a compelling screenplay that works because real life rarely fits the format of film. There's something to be said for authenticity in storytelling when basing a story on reality, but I wouldn't fault Cooper and the writers for their alterations if "Black Mass" had worked a little more than it does. As it is, it felt like it was building to something but never quite got there and lost track of a lot of characters along the way. Nevertheless "Black Mass" feels unique for its interesting mix of the gangster genre and the monster horror genre. If the rest had worked better it could have been something truly special.

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