J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Black Mass: Depp as Bulger

The one man James “Whitey” Bulger truly regrets not killing is radio host Howie Carr. Of course, it was not for a lack of trying. Yet, there is no mention of Carr in Hollywood’s first take on the Bulger case. In many ways, it is a kitchen sink movie, but its inclusions and exclusions are each significant. However, there is no denying the gangster’s fierceness in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Bulger hated to be called Whitey, preferring to be called Jimmy by friends and low life associates. Whitey was the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, his brother William was the Democrat president of the Massachusetts State Senate, and John Connolly was the hotshot FBI agent returning to the South Boston neighborhood of his youth. Whitey had once interceded when a group of bullies were battering Connolly and he had idolized the unstable Bulger ever since. It seems that he still does.

According to Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s adaptation of Dick Lahr & Gerard O’Neill’s book, Connolly hatched the idea of an FBI alliance with Bulger out of misplaced hero-worship. Whether that is psychologically accurate or not, the upshot remains the same. Connolly used FBI resources to protect Bulger and facilitate his brutal expansion in exchange for information on the Italian mafia. Just how much information Bulger provided is the subject of great contention, but Black Mass portrays his reluctant scoop as the turning point in the mafia investigation.

Essentially, Black Mass jogs through the sad criminal epic, hitting the major bases and giving viewers of grab bag smattering of perspectives on Whitey. There is the Southie folk hero who helps old Mrs. Cody with her groceries. There is the psychopathic Whitey, who would take you out and shoot you for saying the wrong thing. There is also a smidge of the co-conspiring Brothers Bulger, whom Carr castigated for robbing people blind—one using the force of the Winter Hill Gang, the other using the force of the government.

The problem is Cooper and company clearly bought into Whitey’s self-invented mythology to some extent, in order to portray him as a Cagney-esque figure. Yet, Whitey is the man who forced Stephen Rakes to sign over his liquor store, simply because he was stronger and he wanted it. That’s not Robin Hood. That’s the Sheriff of Nottingham. Whitey terrified South Boston in that manner, but it is completely absent from the film.

On the plus side, the Johnny Depp we have been missing for years finally decided to show up. He captures Whitey’s erratic intensity, venomous rage, and wiry power. Although small in stature, he is a physically intimidating presence. One look at him says bad news. That was how Whitey kept the town under his heel for so long.

Joel Edgerton is suitably awestruck and ultimately quite pitiable as the Connolly. However, while FBI special agent Robert Fitzpatrick was the hero of Joe Berlinger’s documentary WHITEY: the United States of America v. James J. Bulger, he is relegated to the background of Mass and played by the inconsequential Adam Scott, who looks far too young to be the agent that busted James Earl Ray (disclosure: my house published Fitzpatrick’s book, but we have never met).

Similarly, Benedict Cumberbatch is obviously proud of his Boston accent, but he does not radiate adequate villainy as William Bulger. Still, Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane are totally credible as Whitey’s trusted inner circle, but their most substantial scenes come in the first twenty minutes during the interrogation framing device.

Depp should be in contention for his work as Whitey, because it really is that good. Unfortunately, it comes in a rather shallow and inconsistent film. Far from being the final word on Bulger, Black Mass is a disappointment that only serves as an effective star vehicle for Depp when it opens today (9/18) at the AMC Empire in New York.

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