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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review: Black Mass (2015)

* * 1/2

Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton

Black Mass is one of the more curious films of 2015 in terms of its pop culture trajectory. When the trailer came out, people seemed to be abuzz and ready to declare that Johnny Depp was back, after years spent in the wilderness of schticky, make-up dependent characters, to being a serious, risk taking actor (never mind that this role also requires him to wear a lot of makeup, this is a serious role, after all, not a wacky one). Then the film came out and reviews were decent and there was some talk about an Oscar nomination for Depp, but no one seemed particularly excited about the film, and then it just sort of seemed to fade away. Having now seen Black Mass, I can sort of understand why. It's a fine movie, in the way that gangster movies living in the long shadow of Goodfellas can be fine, and Depp gives his best, most engaged performance in some time, but the film has a fatal flaw that keeps it from being anything more than so-so: it has tailored itself to fit the character played by the star instead of the character who is the story's true protagonist, and as a result struggles to tell a story.

Depp stars as James "Whitey" Bulger, legendary leader of Boston's Winter Hill gang who managed to evade capture from 1994 until 2011. At the time the film opens in 1975, he's not yet the kingpin he would go on to become and is instead a small time gangster limited in his territory by the presence of the Italian mob in the North end. When he's approached by the FBI about becoming an informant, he sees it as an opportunity to get the FBI to do his dirty work for him, clearing out the Italians and creating a vacuum of power that he himself can fill. Nestled under the protective awning of the FBI, Bulger ruthlessly takes control and makes his FBI handlers complicit in his crimes and, as the years go on, his enterprise becomes bigger and more far reaching, branching out from Boston and extending to Miami and to an attempt to assist the IRA in Ireland, and the FBI becomes increasingly frustrated by the knowledge that they're being played and used to help Bulger advance his holdings and more firmly root his power.

As Bulger, Depp delivers a fearsome performance as a man so tightly coiled that he can (and does) spring at any moment, but the character isn't really a great one to build a story around because there's no real arc to him. Mid-way through the film, a character comments that Bulger was never the same after the deaths of his young son and his mother, but the only evidence of that is that line spoken in the film. As depicted in Black Mass, Bulger is a violent psycho willing to kill people seemingly at the drop of a hat and for little more than insulting him when his son and mother are alive, and he's a violent psycho willing to kill people seemingly at the drop of a hat and for little more than insulting him after his son and mother have died. There's no growth there as a character and the film simply stating that he's changed doesn't actually make it so if his behavior before and after the events which create the supposed demarcation line in his life are exactly the same.

The real protagonist of the story is John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Bulger's brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) who grows up to become an FBI agent and is the person to suggest that Bulger might be a valuable asset to the agency and then approaches him to make the pitch. As depicted by the film, Connolly still feels the strong sense of hero worship he felt for Bulger when they were kids and to such an extent that it doesn't feel beyond the realm of possibility that the whole reason he became an FBI agent in the first place was to nurture a relationship with Bulger by becoming his handler/protector. At first, Connolly's goals seem at least somewhat genuine, insofar as Bulger does provide intel that leads to the arrests of the Italian mobsters, but long after Bulger has ceased to be of any actuall use to the FBI, Connolly is still protecting him as a valuable asset, so enamored is he with the fact that he gets to hang out and be friends with Bulger and do something to help him that might elicit the gratitude of his childhood hero. Without much effort on Bulger's part, Connolly is seduced to the dark side, going from "protecting" Bulger to actively aiding him in his crimes, and only realizing once it's too late just how deeply he's sunk himself and how thoroughly he's lost everything that once mattered to him. Now that is a character arc, but it exists for the character not played by a star, playing a role that doesn't require hours in the makeup chair, and so Connolly becomes a secondary player even though his is the more fascinating story.

It's fascinating, at any rate, as played by Edgerton, an actor who has seemed on the verge of breaking out for years without ever quite getting there. Connolly is a man divided from the beginning - proud, on the one hand, of his accomplishments in becoming an FBI agent while also, on the other hand, sheepish when confronted by Bulger about being on the side of the law and all too eager to assure him that him being in law enforcement can help them both. He wants Bulger's approval so badly that he blindly sacrifices everything, becoming more and more compromised as a law enforcement agent and a human being as he gets drawn further into Bulger's web, yet always somehow remaining convinced that he's good at his job. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Connolly is a pitiable character - his arrogance goes a long way to softening the blow of his long fall into disgrace - but his growing desperation to at least save a little face once he realizes that he won't be able to extract himself from the situation he's created has a certain degree of poignancy, especially once he realizes that he's maneuvered his way out of even so much as that. If there's any tragic character in Black Mass, it's John Connolly, and it's the fact that his tragedy is wholly of his own making that makes his story so compelling. It's just too bad the film doesn't actually know that about itself.

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