Based on the book written by journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass explores the biggest scandal in the FBI’s history when an ambitious FBI agent made a deal with a notorious gangster that eventually backfired. Black Mass looks at the rise of the notorious Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a thug who rose to the top of the Boston underworld thanks largely to an “alliance” he formed with ambitious FBI agent John Connolly. Bulger was at one time second only to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
This is a searing study of ambition, misguided loyalty, crime and corruption. Much of what transpires here will be familiar to some audiences as the story was explored in great detail in Joe Berlinger’s documentary Whitey: United States of America v James J Bulger, which screened at MIFF in 2014.
A former childhood friend from the same neighbourhood, Connolly (played here by Joel Edgerton) grew up alongside the Bulgers and believed in a code of loyalty and brotherhood. In this world of Boston, close family ties and loyalties counted for a lot. But there was also the stink of corruption. Bulger’s brother Billy was a Senator and the most powerful political figure in Boston, and many suspected that he was also using his influence to protect Whitey.
A rising star in the FBI after assignments in San Francisco and new York, Connolly was charged with bringing down the Angiulo crime family. Connolly managed to wrangle a deal with the psychopathic Bulger, convincing the gangster to inform on mob activities. Connelly had to deal with internal tensions and the bureaucracy within the FBI itself to push his plan to use Bulger to inform on the criminal underworld.
With Bulger’s help, Connolly brought down the notorious Angiulo crime family, thus unwittingly paving the way for Bulger to expand his own criminal activities through violence, murder and intimidation. Unfortunately Connolly had made a pact with the devil and he ultimately found himself compromised by his unswerving faith in Bulger, who didn’t share his sense of loyalty and moral code. Connolly was blinded to Bulger’s true nature and the out of control mobster cemented his own position as kingpin of the Boston underworld while both he and the FBI turned a blind eye to his activities. Eventually the whole house of cards crumbled around him and the disgraced FBI agent was eventually sentenced to forty years in prison.
Director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) brings a documentary-like approach to the material here as he charts Whitey’s brutal rise to power. He gives this pulpy crime drama the same sort of detailed, forensic approach that David Fincher brought to his true crime drama Zodiac.
This is a sprawling saga that spans some 20 years, and explores that complex relationship between Bulger and Connolly. Cooper gives the film a grimy and authentic 70s look and feel, which is enhanced by the washed out cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey), who also makes great use of Boston locations to give us a strong sense of place. Cooper is obviously trying to make an epic crime drama along the lines of The Godfather or Scorsese’s Goodfellas or even the similarly Boston set The Departed, which was a thinly fictionalised treatment of Bulger’s life of crime, but his ambition falls short. Black Mass is Scorsese-lite. Cooper lacks that explosive energy and gritty style that Scorsese brought to his best films, nor does he have Scorsese’s sense of pop cultural references or a superb soundtrack to evoke the era.
There is also a lack of pace at times and a huge cast of characters, many of whom do not leave much of an impression. Black Mass seems to borrow plot elements and characters we have seen before in many other crime dramas and Cooper himself seems to borrow from the stylistic playbook of numerous other superior filmmakers. This is the third feature film from Cooper, a former actor, but doesn’t stamp his own distinctive individual style over the material.
The narrative structure of the film uses multiple voice overs from a number of Whitey’s former criminal associates as they are interview by an FBI agent who is gathering evidence against Connolly.
But Cooper manages to draw a real performance from Depp rather than that hammy, over the top and camp approach he brought to previous films like the Pirates of the Caribbean series, The Lone Ranger or the dreadful comic crime caper Mortdecai. Returning to the gritty true crime drama of his earlier Donnie Brasco, in which he played an undercover cop infiltrating the mob, Depp gives us one of his best performances in years. With his pale skin and receding hairline he develops a distinctively eerie look as the charismatic but psychopathic Bulger. He reveals a more creepy and sinister side with a volatile and brooding performance as he moves from smoothly charming to homicidal in the blink of an eye. It’s not surprising that he wanted to play a villainous role as it has more depth and range.
Edgerton is establishing a solid career in Hollywood now with some strong work, like his recent psychological thriller The Gift. Here he is superb as he manages to capture Connolly’s ambition and sense of loyalty as well as his morally ambiguous approach.
Cooper directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar with Crazy Heart, so it’s not surprising that actors want to work with him, and he has managed to assemble a strong ensemble cast to flesh out some of the characters. Unfortunately, many of the characters remain underdeveloped and the strong cast are not given much to work with. Benedict Cumberbatch is underused as Billy Bulger, while Kevin Bacon is also something of a cipher here as Connolly’s FBI boss. Peter Sarsgaard comes across as a weaselly low level criminal with a slimy and ingratiating performance, while former CSI: Miami star Rory Cochrane makes the most of his role as Stevie Flemmi, Bulger’s close associate and right hand man.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television