Directed by: Scott Cooper. The short version of this review is: if you want a concise, well-done, compelling piece of mythology loosely based on real-life Irish gangsters in Boston, in a film that’s actually fun to watch, go for The Departed. If you’re looking for a film that adheres closer to the biographical details of Whitey Bulger and John Connolly, but which culminates in a pretty meandering, weak, misshapen half-assed movie with no heart and no substance and no reason to give a shit, then this movie is your movie. Comparing these two, The Departed and Black Mass, is a really interesting lesson in the function of Hollywood, of myth-making, of “true stories”. The foundational nuggets of truth in the story of The Departed were there because, by coincidence, they lined up just enough with the structure of the story Scorsese actually wanted to tell—an English language remake of the Hong Kong action flick Infernal Affairs, which was made (I assume) in complete ignorance of the biographical details of James “Whitey” Bulger, and which features a cop going undercover as a gangster, and a gangster going undercover as a cop, both of whom just nearly cross paths with each other. Now obviously, what the filmmakers were going for in Black Mass was a more stripped down, austere, “realistic” movie without the hyper-stylization of a Scorsese film (and without Scorsese’s hyper-ADD editing style, which in my opinion, is put to some of its best uses in The Departed). And in principle, I like the idea of a movie that goes for “just the facts”, and presents a detached, disinterested view of human behaviour and human events. But for the most part, those kinds of movies don’t exist, and they sure don’t exist in Hollywood, and it sure doesn’t exist in this movie. This movie fails for me because, even though it’s not as inventive with the facts as The Departed, and not as flashy as The Departed, and the plot isn’t a piece of exciting clockwork like The Departed, and it isn’t a really satisfying rollercoaster of a harrowing drama where bad guys and good guys cross paths and moral boundaries are blurred like The Departed, it is still a run-of-the-mill, stylized Hollywood gangster flick that stews in the unmotivated, senseless violence and inherent evil embodied in its protagonist. And for that matter, I hate to be that guy, but this film doesn’t really have a protagonist either. Whitey Bulger is the main character because it’s Johnny Depp (in case you couldn’t tell underneath that fucking Halloween mask he’s wearing the entire movie), but the film spends so much time meandering (not hopping, meandering) between Whitey and his shit, and John Connolly and his shit, and a bunch of time on the other characters, but not enough time on any of them. And this is also educational in regards to “likability”, which I had previously dismissed as a simplistic, childish concern, but it’s very real. As “unlikeable” as Charles Foster Kane, or Ebenezer Scrooge, or Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, or Walter White from Breaking Bad may be on paper, they are still really compelling to watch—you want to know what’s going to happen because you want to know why they are the way they are. In this film, for me, Whitey Bulger and John Connolly are just a couple of unlikable, violent, greedy, small-minded street thugs looking out for their own base compulsions, and the film offers no respite from them.
The film starts with Kevin Weeks explaining how he got involved in the gang, but the film doesn’t stay with him long enough, and he doesn’t play that big a role, and we don’t give a shit about him. The film shows a bit of humanity peaking through the cracks of Steve Flemmi (played by the amazing Rory Cochrane, who’s really come a long way from Empire Records), but again, not enough that we can form a bond with him, or really give that much of a shit about him. John Connolly’s wife (excellently played by Julianne Nicholson) offers the audience a shred of an accomplice, someone we can identify with, but the film gives her about 10 minutes of dramatic time and then drops her about a half hour from the end. Benedict Cumberbatch was great to watch, but his character is morally bankrupt, and ultimately, his motivations are a detail that this film isn’t really interested in either. You got the guilty partner, played by David Harbour, who has a bit of conscience at the end, but again, the film isn’t about him. This film is about John Connolly, but the film is too dumb to know what it’s even about. The film thinks it’s about Whitey Bulger because he’s the interesting criminal guy, but the really interesting part of this story is how law enforcement colluded with this gangster—the film asserts as much by spending so much time on Connolly and his efforts to cover up for Whitey so they can nail the mafia. The story of how an actual FBI agent was able to run one of the most notoriously violent active criminals in American history as a protected informant, for years, is a really fascinating story, and that’s the only reason anyone gives a shit about this story, about Whitey Bulger. There’s the story of how Bulger was able to live on the run as a fugitive for decades after that, but the film is utterly uninterested in that whole period, giving it a few stock lines of wrap-up text at the end (and an oddly frivolous little pre-credits scene for five seconds that looks like it’s from another movie). If the film had stuck with Connolly, no matter how unlikable Connolly is as a character in this movie, we could follow it, we could focus on him and his wife, their dynamic (or better yet, frame this as the wife’s story, getting it all from her perspective—crazy idea!), something, anything, so that we can get emotionally invested in some characters, which is what film is supposed to do. This film got too caught up in lining its posters with names (Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Benedict Cumberbatch) and it got too caught up giving those actors something to do, that it was a fucking mess, dramatically speaking. I found the film simultaneously boring and exhausting as a viewer, much like this review itself. I’ll just end on a few small notes—Johnny Depp needs to drop the fucking Halloween mask that has become the last 15 years of his career and just do a good role in a good movie, if he knows what that means anymore; Juno Temple did a good job in her small, throwaway role, and the last time I saw her was again opposite Cumberbatch in Atonement; Joel Edgerton seems like a great actor, and he did a great job here with what he had, but I’d like to see him in something that’s good, especially since he had such a small part in Animal Kingdom. All of this being said, I still sought out this movie, knowing basically exactly what I was getting into, and I saw it anyway. So it can’t be that bad.