Has Hollywood Given up on Drama? – A Review of Black Mass

Has Hollywood given up on drama? Film-makers there seem to be going for spectacle and elegy,recently with Spectre and now with Black Mass, a slow-paced narrative, the most memorable element of which is the strings-based soundtrack by Junkie XL (as Tom Holkenborg).
The film seems ‘old’. It feels like this type of gangster/cop rivalry and collusion drama has been handled better in films like Goodfellas, Scarface,Donnie Brasco and many others.
It’s not clear if Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger, played by Johnny Depp, is the protagonist or the victim. Bulger never seems to set against anyone or anything. The FBI and policing services are his allies, not antagonists. The Italian Mafia are the enemy but are never seen close to the action, apart from a killing in which mixed ethnic messages are given by a motorcycle with Italian (Moto Guzzi) and British branding (Triumph).
Black Mass Johnny Depp - Headstuff.org
Johnny Depp as “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass Source

Johnny Depp is mis-cast, though it may simply be the problem of being The Johnny Depp. A sense that his mask and hair line could ping off at any time persists. Slick though it obviously is, that it doesn’t ever become ruffled creates a vivid impression and a mystery.

There are no African Americans in the film, except perhaps in street scenes or far back in an office scene. Was South Boston so homogeneously white through Whitey’s reign? This adds to the sense that the film is ‘old’, dated rather than historic.
Women are secured to the kitchen sink. Bulger dotes on his aged mother. He and his crew help a little old lady with her shopping. Young women are mothers or victims. Marianne Connolly rages that her husband could bring Bulger and his associates into their home for beers and barbecue. She screams that they shouldn’t be in her kitchen. She later endures a murderously sexual groping from Bulger, one of the more chilling scenes in the film.
It is chilling because it is not blatant or predictable, as the many back-of-the head gun shootings or the strangulations are. They are not chilling. In a world full of images of beheadings and killings by drone-delivered weaponry, Bulger’s atrocities are disengaging. Instead of feelings of shock and horror, discomfort and outrage, feelings of boredom and disconnection prevail.
Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp in Black Mass - Headstuff.org
Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp in Black Mass Source

If Johnny Depp is miscast, Kevin Bacon, FBI officer Charles Maguire, and Benedict Cumberbatch, as Jimmy’s politician brother Billy, have very little to work with. There’s a scene of a spat in the FBI office when Charles Maguire seems on the verge of uncovering the duplicity of his star investigator, John Connolly, played very well by Joel Edgerton. It has the low-energy huffiness of a faux-fight among Ivy League dorm mates, pretending to be ‘street’.

The elegy rolls along as a series of voiced-over testimonies by individuals involved in the story, told in a time-line manner which grounds the storytelling in a slow-staccato ‘and then and then’ rhythm, to produce a downbeat biopic and, ultimately, a sense of ‘so what’.
There never appears to be anything at stake for Bulger, the bent cops and agents or for the people of South Boston. The first character with agency and urgency is Fred Wysack, the late-arriving DA, played by Corey Stoll, who’s actions begin the ending of the film.
Perhaps the film-makers reliance on narrative rather than drama comes from the book. Perhaps they sought to cleave firmly to it and the film suffers from a reliance on the ordinariness of the grim actions of Bulger and Connolly, without managing to require audiences to engage beyond thinking ‘right, that’s what happened’.
Mystic River, (Clint Eastwood, 2003) is set in South Boston and involves vicious gangsters and cops caught between collusion and conviction to much better effect. It is based on a book. A novel not a history. Thus it gives us an affecting drama, not an underwhelming bio-pic. Like Black Mass.
Featured image post: blackmassthemovie.com