Reviews

Johnny Depp Plays a Monster in 'Black Mass'

Gangster Jimmy (Depp) is less deviant than representative, here; an embodiment of the delusions that drive institutions.


Black Mass

Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple, Kevin Bacon
Rated: R
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-10-08 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"There's informing and there's informing." So says James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp), by way of explaining the arrangement he's made with the FBI. His buddy Stevie (Rory Cochrane) looks skeptical. Working with the feds, after all, is a breach of gangster ethics. But Whitey -- known around South Boston as Jimmy -- has an angle. Through this "alliance", he tells Stevie, the US government will be fighting their war against the mafia.

Stevie doesn't appear convinced, but no matter. Again and again in Black Mass, Jimmy gets his way. No matter his illogic or instability, friends, relatives, and associates do what he wants, telling themselves that what he says makes sense even when it plainly doesn't. The movie doesn't explain Jimmy's behavior or their decisions so much as it offers the alarmingly long career of Boston's "most notorious gangster" as a sensational and strange gloss on how the world works.

That world may be centered in Southie, where Jimmy's Irish-American Winter Hill Gang does business, but it's hardly contained there. Scott Cooper's movie submits that Jimmy's inane, sometimes pathetic ambitions found support in a network of corruption and ineptitude in local, national, and even international politics, in men who imagined themselves more in control of their fortunes than they can possibly be.

His brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Massachusetts State Senator, looks the other way and his lover Lindsey (Dakota Johnson) puts up with nonsensical life lessons for their little boy (when his son caught beating a classmate, Jimmy tells him that being caught is the problem: "If nobody sees it, it didn't happen") and his childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), now an FBI agent, comes up with the arrangement by which Jimmy for years provides minimal information -- enlisted as a "professional criminal consultant" --while committing all sorts of unlawful mayhem.

In this context, Jimmy is less deviant than representative, an embodiment of the delusions that drive institutions. It's true that Jimmy appears to be the wildest of cards, his ambitions at once outrageous and silly, including his efforts to control the briefly lucrative business of jai alai and ship a tiny boatload of weapons to the IRA. At least partly functions of their time, Jimmy's reign during the late '70s and early '80s, these ventures indicate the limits of his vision and the fantasies he indulged.

When they failed, he responded with acts of extraordinary, sociopathic violence, inspiring fear in his victims and potential victims, which is to say, pretty much anyone. This point is made repeatedly, underlined by slow zooms onto showing observers of Jimmy's cruelty, say, Stevie, his jaw slack and blood draining from his face as he's unable to look away.

It's a familiar movie trick, positioning you with a witness to terrible acts, so you might feel distanced and righteous rather than implicated. When the camera cuts to Jimmy's face during these scenes, his mouth open just enough to show his bad teeth, you're also let off a hook, as you Depp's blue contact lenses and unconvincing makeup remind you that you're watching a show, that the stakes for you are minimal. This especially when the movie offers up an overheated montage, cutting together a raucous nightclub scene with an efficient murder in a parking lot, as well as a dramatic set-piece where Jimmy puts his hands on John's wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), just after she complains to her husband about his activities and takes to her bedroom to read The Exorcist.

What's at stake for Jimmy remains a mystery. The movie offers some opinions on his meanness via interviews with accomplices hauled in by a joint task force (the DEA, the MA State Police, and the Boston PD), including Stevie and other assassins, their faces now lined and their hair no longer '80s-styled, their regrets visible. But their interpretations of his motives can't make any more sense than yours. They share their stories, providing voiceover introductions to flashbacks that aren't exactly theirs, suggesting that after the deaths of his son and mother (Erica McDermott), he changed. But as you never see how he was, it's hard to tell what's gone on, what's different. He appears in church, surrounded by Catholic ritual, but he's plainly incapable of confession, of comprehension.

This version of Jimmy is surely lurid, but it's considerably less compelling or informative than the puzzle presented in Joe Berlinger's remarkable Whitey. While the documentary features exclusive interviews with Bulger, it hardly suggests his or any of his colleagues' stories is quite truthful. Rather, it sets their explanations, their rationalizations, against the tales of terror and pain recalled by victims. Black Mass can't do that and simultaneously engage you in watching Jimmy's viciousness. And so it shows you what you've seen before, criminals and cops misbehaving.

As much as Black Mass frames Jimmy as a monster, and even considers his enablers and observers to be troubling, it resists reflecting on the culture that produces him. As scary as Jimmy may appear, he's anomalous and remote. It's like he says, "There's informing and there's informing."

4
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