It’s clear from early on that Black Mass will not be distinguished by its script, but by its faces. From the first glimpse of Jesse Plemons’ squashed Mickey Rooney-by-way-of-James Cagney mug, to Johnny Depp’s eerie visage (the product of some brilliant makeup), by turns reptilian and sepulchral, it’s the faces of the people we see which stick with us, more than the clumsy narrative or uneven dialogue.
That Black Mass exceeded my expectations and ended up an overall rewarding experience may be in large part because I respect a film which knows the value of faces. As a crime drama, it’s adequate, but as a visual essay in amorality, it has nuances which make it worth your while.
Told via a rather clunky framing device, as his various associates confess their crimes to the authorities (namely to an interrogator (Lonnie Farmer) who is never identified for some reason), the story begins around 1975, as James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp), already a feared gang leader in South Boston, is approached by an old friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who asks Bulger to give him information which will bring down the Italian Mafia in the Boston area–in exchange for which, the Bureau will leave Bulger’s operations untouched.
Bulger agrees, justifying his actions as “business”, rather than the mortal offense of informing, and provides Connolly with little information while amassing ever greater power (and an ever larger pile of bodies), and grappling with tragedies such as the death of his young son and his mother. Finally, a desperate Connolly begs him for information which can decisively take down the Mafia, and gets it–which only leaves the door open for Bulger to continue his reign.
Connolly becomes increasingly corrupt and complicit in Bulger’s crimes, which leads, after the intervention of a suspicious prosecutor (Corey Stoll), to Connolly’s downfall and the exposure of Bulger’s informant status, which leads to the arrest of his colleagues, the besmirching of his senator brother’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) reputation, and Bulger’s nearly 20-year flight from the law, before his eventual arrest and incarceration.
The script by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk never seems on its own to get very far beneath the surface of Bulger, or anyone for that matter–it wastes a deal of time with its framing device and gives most of its impressive cast surprisingly little to do, at least on paper. It’s director Scott Cooper who brings the film’s greatest strengths to the table.
Well, him and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who does some fine work with framing and even better work with light and texture, capturing the chill of the film’s world, from the wintry gray of Boston to the sickly neon of Miami, portraying the violence bluntly and the corruption subtly, often through an evasive glance or a vengeful scowl. And the makeup team (lead, I believe, by Joel Harlow), who do such a marvelous job transforming Depp into a guttural vampire and simulating the brutality of Bulger’s world.
Stefania Cella’s production design can hardly be faulted; it evokes the garishness of 70s design without irony, and transitions smoothly into the 80s. Nor can Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s costumes, which are flashy only when required and convincing at all times. And Tom Holkenborg (who wrote the score for Mad Max Fury Road under the name Junkie XL) provides a score which mourns the depravity of the story from the very start, without becoming heavy-handed.
And the cast deserves kudos, even when the script lets them down. Depp has been the subject of awards buzz for a while now, and it’s not unjustified; without having seen every performance of his in the last decade, I have to imagine it’s his best performance since at least Sweeney Todd, though so much credit must go, again, to the makeup team, which gives him a sallow complexion which only grows more withered and malicious as the years pass, and a pair of unnervingly bright blue eyes which always stare just a little too closely at you…or into you.
Even Depp is underserved by the writers, who don’t really figure out what made Whitey tick, but he never seems unsure in his portrayal, and the contrasted moments of familial devotion and brutal rage both clearly stem from a common nature. In fact, it’s the glimmers of tenderness which arguably stay in the memory the best; there’s a brief scene between Depp and Cumberbatch near the end which is as powerful as it is simple. He really does give a fine performance, though he appears a shade less often than he ought to.
And the supporting cast work with Cooper to fill out the sometimes ragged margins of the story as best they can–and in many respects, they succeed. Edgerton has the biggest role (arguably in the whole film), and he plays the growing arrogance and duplicity of Connolly extremely well, making great use of his permanent sneer, which makes him look a bit like a meaner John Cusack–again, the film’s use of faces is one of its most distinctive elements. It might also be the best work I’ve seen from Edgerton to date–he’s a good actor but too often he appears in underwhelming films.
Cumberbatch doesn’t actually get that much to do, and his accent isn’t 100% there, but he’s solid enough. Peter Sarsgaard, as a drugged-out nervous wreck who literally has to be paid not to carry out a hit for Bulger, gives a superbly nervy performance; it makes me all the more excited for his lead role in Experimenter. David Harbour, as Connolly’s partner who is drawn into Bulger’s orbit, shows his good-natured weakness (for he cannot stand up to Connolly, even as his deceptions become increasingly blatant) with his smooth, almost puffy face–the face of a true gull. (Adam Scott, in a small role as a fellow agent, has a sneakily inquisitive nature not unlike a ferret’s.) As Connolly’s superior, who smells a rat long before the truth comes out, Kevin Bacon proves as welcome a presence as ever.
As Connolly’s wife, Julianne Nicholson is quite strong (as I recall, she’s been receiving special notice in a number of reviews); one scene in particular, a confrontation between her and Depp, is one of the most grueling scenes of the year, and I will not describe it further. And Dakota Johnson, as Bulger’s then-partner and the mother of his ill-fated son, shows far more talent in a few scenes than in all of Fifty Shades of Grey. Even Juno Temple, in a brief (and somewhat extraneous) role, brings a little cheerful trashiness to her scene and a half–the shockwaves from which do reverberate throughout the rest of the film. Finally, Stoll is unfortunately rather wasted, though there’s a satisfying scene where he shuts down Connolly’s attempted schmoozing.
In scenes, in individual performances, in images and details, Black Mass is quite a good film. It falls short on a larger scale, however, and given how good how much of it is, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why the script wasn’t brought a little more up to snuff. It’s not enough to discount the film as a whole, but it’s a low **** film which wants to be, and in its best moments is, a good deal better.