Sunday, October 4, 2015

Black Mass

Alternate Title:  The Adventures of Jimmy B and his Bestest Palls

One sentence synopsis:     James "Whitey" Bulger and his gang form an alliance with the FBI to extend their power over Boston.

Things Havoc liked:  Ever since the details of his case came out back in 1997, the story of Irish mob boss Whitey Bulger and his illicit relationship with a network of corrupt FBI agents has tantalized a Hollywood still obsessed, in the main, with gangster flicks. Scorsese's "The Departed" was more or less openly based on Bulger's story, with Jack Nicholson taking on the starring role to effect that varied depending on who you asked. I quite liked The Departed, but it was pastiche, a thin retelling of a completely new story using characters inspired by real gangsters, something Scorsese has done many times before. The actual truth of the matter, of who Bulger was and what he did to earn himself a place on the notorious FBI Most Wanted list, remained untold, waiting for another director, in this case Scott Cooper, of Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace (two excellent films), to come along and take a crack at it with the assistance of an actor who desperately, desperately needed to be in a good movie for a change.

What a decade it has been for Johnny Depp, a man I once respected immensely, who has systematically squandered all of the goodwill he earned from me with every appearance of intent. He was one of my favorite actors once, in movies like Finding Neverland, Ed Wood, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Blow, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and of course Donnie Brasco, a gangster movie in which Depp played an undercover cop opposite Al Pacino during one of his brief periods of lucidity. All of this wonderful work, and yet what has Depp done for the last fifteen years but throw all of it away playing cartoon characters, literal or figurative, in appalling dreck such as the later Pirates movies, The Lone Ranger, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, and last year's execrable luddite homily, Transcendence. So bad has his career become that the best thing I can say for it is that his three minute cameo as a pedophilic Big Bad Wolf in last Christmas's Into the Woods didn't ruin the movie for me. Formerly regarded as one of the great actors of his generation, Depp has become a joke, through enough collective memory remains of his great early work that we keep hoping he will, against all expectations, pull a Matthew McConaughey, and suddenly transition back into good movies once again. Black Mass, in fact, was sold almost entirely on the notion that it was just that, Depp returning to serious roles as a serious actor. He's the reason I went to see the thing in the first place.

And you know what? He's awesome. Depp's films have been so bad, so cartoonish recently, that we forget just how great his acting range really is, and here, in this movie, we finally get to see something of the old magic again. Almost unrecognizeable behind makeup that ironically makes him look more like a Vampire than Tim Burton's films ever did, Depp is a sinister, menacing, violent figure looming over this film, with none of the self-referential winks or crotchety old-man vibes that Nicholson brought to the role. An evil, manipulative gang lord with no conscience or sense of redeeming qualities beyond the ferocious loyalty he half-inspires, half-enforces on the rest of his cronies, Depp blows everyone else off the screen, his voice a low, cavernous Boston drawl, dripping with semi-sarcastic hate. He seems to feed on his own persona as a local Irish townie who was tougher than everyone else, murdering men in broad daylight with a carbine or beating them into a bloody pulp with a sudden explosion of frothing rage. Even his own allies within the FBI are afraid of him, and so are we. It's Depp's best role in decades, one of his best ever, and an anchor point to the tie the movie to, the core element of what should have been a gob-smacking tale of corruption, violence, crime, and punishment.

Things Havoc disliked:  And yet...

To my surprise, given the pedigree of Scott Cooper, and the quality of the supporting cast, Depp isn't the problem with this movie. Indeed he's one of the only actors in the film that manages to pull anything out of it. The rest of the dozens of characters orbiting around Depp's performance are almost entirely useless for a variety of reasons, and it's this, not Depp, which ultimately sinks the film. Joel Edgerton, whom I'm beginning to realize is simply a bad actor, plays FBI Agent John Connoly, a childhood friend of the Bulger family, who proposes an alliance between Bulger's Winter Hill Gang and the FBI so as to bring down the Italian mob. Given that this alliance is the central drama of the film, and that the movie, truthfully or not, makes clear that the entire thing was Connoly's idea, foisted on a semi-reluctant Bulger after much persuading, it's really Connoly who should be the focal character of the film, at least structurally, but Edgerton is a boring actor, and his character, a slick, slimy, charlatan of an FBI agent who drags others down with him, is not as interesting to watch as Depp's Bulger is, nor does the film manage to convince us that he's the sort of person that could mastermind something like this. The movie makes Bulger look almost indifferent to the entire thing, blowing Connoly off when he brings up issues that might arise, and treating him with the grudging semi-contempt that a high school cool kid might treat a nerd who wormed his way into the cool kids' table at lunch. Indeed the film goes so far as to suggest that the entire reason Connoly maintained the alliance so long was because he was obsessed with being "in" with someone like Bulger, a obsession that was entirely unrequited. Maybe this is all true (though it smells a lot like someone trying to pin all the blame for a multi-decade conspiracy within the FBI on the one fall guy who got convicted for it all), but narratively, it's like watching the first half of an 80s High School movie over and over again, without any character movement or development, nor any rapport between our main characters, the sort of which is required for a good gangster movie like this to function. Michael Mann knew this much.

And the problem spreads from there. Because Edgerton looks hapless and frankly pathetic, it makes all of the other people engaged in trying to work around this unholy alliance look stupid or powerless. Kevin Bacon and David Harbour do their best with what they're given, but what they're given just isn't that much. They roil and scream or agonize over questions of what the right thing to do is, and then let themselves be walked all over by a man we have just watched being walked all over. When finally the noose starts to close around everyone, thanks to newly-arrived crusading DA Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll, making up for a bad turn in Antman), the movie picks up somewhat, but only so that we can ask why nobody was able to put a stop to this earlier? Any hints of wider corruption are ruthlessly suppressed in the film, so we are left with the conclusion that the Boston office of the FBI was comprised entirely of shy, retiring gentlemen, who thought it would be too awkward to ask one of their agents to please stop assisting Whitey Bulger with his murder spree.

Meanwhile the rest of Bulger's friends and family are a just a mish-mash of poor execution and bad pacing. The movie opens with Friday Night Lights' Jesse Plemons playing a newcomer to the Bulger gang, his initiation, his meetings with Bulger, etc. The film clearly seems to be setting this character up as an audience viewpoint, along the lines of Goodfellas or Once Upon a Time in America, only to, ten minutes in, drop the character entirely and focus instead on someone else, then someone else again, seemingly at random. Benedict Cumberbatch, he of the most British name, is more or less wasted in the role of Bulger's brother Billy, popping up every twenty minutes or so to say hello before disappearing again without affecting the story. Other character actors, including ones I adore, such as Deadwood's W. Earl Brown, are so sparsely and ill-used in the movie that I actually mistook them for other characters when they finally made a reappearance. The plot, such as it is, just meanders along from point to point, with no cohesive narrative, no sense of the proper passage of time, or even of the rise of Bulger's criminal Empire. Contrast this to The Connection from earlier this year, which managed to show a convincing and utterly real crime syndicate building up and mutating as wars and pressure from the government continued to hammer on it. In Black Mass, nothing actually happens except for vignettes involving schemes to take over a Jai-Alai league (???), and the occasional comment about so-and-so's vending machines. I don't require that every gangster movie provide a primer on the commission of organized crimes, but some sense of what's actually going on here would be of help. As it stands, the movie simply expects us to take the existence of this massive crime syndicate on faith, while simultaneously floundering around in search of a subject.

Final thoughts:   Black Mass is not a bad movie, ultimately, but it is not by any means a great or even good one. That a director known for making legitimately great films like Scott Cooper could have floundered like this points to a serious breakdown in the production and writing process, and yet ultimately the result is that the movie isn't about anything at all, except some kid from South Boston who unrequitedly idolized a bad man so much that he did bad things himself. Ignoring the historical truth of that premise, if the film had just been honest about that being its subject matter, it still might have worked, but the strongest element of the movie, Depp's performance as Whitey Bulger, is never allowed to anchor the film, because of the need to wander this way and that through the screenplay in search of something that the movie can be about. On its own, Depp's return to form is good enough to warrant a look, but if this movie had ambitions of becoming another Scorsese-like exposition of the wacky, evil, violent, and sleazy worlds of organized crime, then all I can suggest is that it probably needs to familiarize itself with its subject matter some more, and come back when it has something to say.

And if not, then I'll be damned if I can figure out what the point of the whole exercise was. Because it sure as hell wasn't to tell the story of Whitey Bulger.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  Into Thin Air.

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