Scott Cooper’s violent thriller about Boston criminal Whitey Bulger fails to engage.
** out of *****
Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: The United States of America V. James J. Bulger (2014) is a modern masterpiece. It tells the same story as Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a derivative ultra-violent homage to Goodfellas, which it desperately wants to be (failing miserably in that respect).
Berlinger’s picture is an alternately terrifying and heartbreaking documentary exposé of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, his protection at the hands of the FBI and the suffering of his hundreds of victims. It’s the victims who give Berlinger’s film oomph. Cooper’s picture does little more than blast through key high points of Bulger’s ‘career’. Bulger was an asshole and psychopath of the first order. This places Black Mass immediately at a disadvantage. There’s clearly no room for redemption and the only change of any consequence is just how appalling Bulger’s actions become.
Focusing too superficially on the family dynamic between Bulger, his State Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and their tough, accepting Mom (Mary Klug), the movie mostly targets Bulger’s 30-year history as a federal informant via old neighbourhood chum, FBI agent John Connolly (superbly played by Joel Edgerton). Bulger is given complete immunity to commit horrific crimes so the FBI can get the dope on the Italian mob whom our ‘hero’ is attempting to rub out so his Irish Winter Hill Gang can completely control all criminal activities in Boston. Seeing as Bulger is so ruthlessly reprehensible (sans the perverse fun Scorsese injects into his pictures), so much of the proceedings are humourless and just plain unpleasant.
Much will be made of Depp’s performance as Bulger and he does indeed seem to be having the time of his life mugging malevolently under a variety of insane makeup designs. His flamboyant excess delivers prime entertainment value, but only to a point. It eventually becomes tiresome. I’ll take Depp’s work as Tonto in The Lone Ranger over this any day.
The biggest problem is a screenplay that doesn’t provide a strong enough adversary for Bulger to play against. This wasn’t a problem in Berlinger’s great documentary since Bulger’s prime victim was the protagonist, genuinely fearing for his life (and indeed getting rubbed out during the film’s shooting and subsequent Bulger trial). What drives the world of Black Mass is Bulger’s enablers, henchmen and virtually faceless rivals whom he stylishly dispatches. It’s the human factor that’s missing right across the board. Humanity is what makes great crime
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