Black Mass is the one thing it shouldn’t be. The count of authors is as high as it usually is for a Hollywood production—Scott Cooper directs, from a script credited to Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, from a book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, with notes surely coming from above (suits) and below (uncredited screenwriters)—and you leave this Bahstahn-based pseudo-epic feeling that they’ve all canceled each other out. The narrative of James “Jimmy” “Whitey” Bulger is one that’s incendiary to any right-thinking mind. And Black Mass, bless its gentle heart, is on the other side of the spectrum: it’s inoffensive.
We open with the title card, and then a tape recorder. It must be the late ’90s—Kevin Weeks is talking to the FBI about Jimmy’s crimes. But first, Weeks is talking to the FBI about the correct phrases that should be used to describe his talking to the FBI. “I’m not a rat,” actor Jesse Plemons barks, searching for the cigarette-stained Southie diction that very few of these actors end up finding. “You understand?” Cooper and the rest of his small army of creatives take that as their cue. You may expect a gangster epic about the man said to have ruled over our city. But what you get is a love story: informants becoming allies—the heads of organized crime and lone individuals at federal bureaus getting all star-crossed on us.
The depositions bring us back to 1975, and we walk forward from there—biopic-style—hitting the moments big enough to earn placement in the litany of autobiographies that have been authored by Bulger’s sewing circle of button-men. A feud with the North End’s mafia leads Bulger to cooperate with the FBI. Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch, doing an accent closer to “Backlot James Cagney” than “Boston”) works his way up the state senate. Bulger’s son dies of an unexpected reaction to aspirin. Bulger recedes further into his own ruthless psyche. The Southie empire grows. The ’80s arrive. Everyone is wearing ugly shoes and getting into jai alai. Bulger murders a corporate stooge, hitman Stephen Flemmi’s stepdaughter, and a few others. We skip through them like a playlist, never seeing Bulger’s workaday crimes, but only their repercussions. Call it Whitey Bulger: Greatest Hits.
There is a hook collecting all these slabs of meat. It’s Bulger’s relationship with Boston-based FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) who brings the kingpin in as a “Top Echelon Informant” to wipe out the denizens of Prince Street, then uses the rather useless information that’s sporadically provided by Bulger to—as the movie tells it—defraud his FBI superiors, all for the sake of defending this neighborhood buddie whom he admired so greatly. What Cooper might have been going for is something like The Master: a movie about two symbolically loaded men (one an unshakeable sociopath, and the other a law enforcement rep who thinks he can shake him) passing through a relationship that blurs all the lines—it’s aspirational, it’s familial, it’s sexual. But what he finds is an overwrought morality play about the dangers of romanticizing evil. And it removes the FBI itself from any legitimate complicity in the events depicted—all to scapegoat a self-professed nobody.
The “faults” that we’ll all spend the next six months nitpicking are of a less malicious sort. We’ll talk about the way the color-timing makes the Boston skyline look like the background of a Grand Theft Auto video game. Or the way that the crying-violin score and the overtly melancholic acting (Eastwood-chic) softens the characters in a way that softens the movie itself. And we’ll definitely point at Depp’s portrayal of Mr. Bulger—under an unmoving piece of skull-cap makeup and with contacts that take the book’s description of the crime lord’s “marble eyes” far too seriously—and observe that he looks less like a real human than like the CGI version of Johnny Depp that they’ll create to star in movies 15 or 20 years after the real Johnny Depp has passed away.
The rest of the filmmaking is comparable in its liveliness. Cooper’s distanced compositions, filled with space-negating shadows—speaking of Eastwood-chic—run far away from any Scorsesean associations you may have, resolutely refusing to share the point of view of the murderers we’re observing. That sidelining technique should allow us to watch closely and craft our own take on the material. But the script is so taken with the events as they’ve been reported and approved by the FBI—by this nonsensical suggestion that one mediocre man was able to con the entire force of the BPD, as well as all of his superiors, while the crimes of the kingpin he was protecting happened in broad daylight, and nobody important was in on the take, not at all, get that idea out of your head—that the film feels more like a defense than an investigation. Once again, what we get is the opposite of what we want. We come for something resembling the truth—figuratively, if not literally. What Black Mass gives us is just the Official Story.
Also playing this week is The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (open now at the Kendall Square Cinema) by documentarian and filmmaker Stanley Nelson, which combines contemporary interviews—featuring police officers, former federal agents, and a number of surviving Panthers—with archival footage to present a broad overview of the history of the political collective. Its deliberate lack of focus, like Black Mass, leads it to skip rather unevenly from one story splinter to another. Frankly, there’s eight or so topics broached here that would make strong subjects for features of their own: the chasm between Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver; the Panther’s ironic origins as proponents of open-carry laws, the assassination of Fred Hampton by the American government, even the group’s knowingly performative use of military dress and order for the sake of financial necessity—“The stars,” one member recollects, “They ate that shit up.”
As cinema, on a formal level, it’s every documentary you’ve seen before: talking heads, distinct chapters, and the audio never contrasts the imagery onscreen. Nelson’s picture is primarily a work of education, and beyond that, of journalism. But his subject has contemporary relevance that demands neither cinematic technique nor direct explication. The current status of police brutality and the mobility of movements like Black Lives Matter are not once raised in this documentary. But they stay in our memory—as does, say, the FBI’s complicity in the NSA’s Special Operations Division, which spent recent years illegally targeted Americans for low-level drug crimes by using outlawed surveillance technology—while we watch Nelson document the ways the American government worked with local police departments to systematically prevent the creation of a defiantly black identity in the center of American culture.
Black Mass asks us to believe that the same organization capable of the organized killings and nationwide subterfuge documented in Black Panthers was taken in and fooled, for decades, by the “alliance” of one kingpin and one regional handler. Maybe that’s the story Cooper and his crew were stuck using. But it asks the audience—it asks us—to assume a naiveté that borders on downright ignorance. One of these movies exists to remove historical redactions. The other one does the redacting.
BLACK MASS. RATED R. OPENS EVERYWHERE FRI 9.18.
THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION. UNRATED. NOW PLAYING AT THE KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA.