Full disclosure: I love gangster movies! It’s definitely my favorite genre, which means that I was always going to like Black Mass on some level (or conversely, be more disappointed than I would be with other films had it failed to reach expectations). Some of the greatest films of all time comprise the genre: “The Godfather”, “Goodfellas”, “The Untouchables”, “Once Upon A Time In America”, etc. But the difference is the aforementioned titles are gangster FILMS–prime examples of cinema as an art form that happen to fall within the gangster genre. That being said, “Black Mass” is about as good as it gets when it comes to gangster MOVIES–pieces of entertainment that, despite their flaws, one can watch again and again as one revels in the acts of power, violence and general badassery on display. They’re imperfect, but they’re fun. Those that belong to this category include “American Gangster”, ‘Blow” and the little-seen gem “At Close Range”. And that’s what “Black Mass” is – a gangster MOVIE, not a film. It by no means reinvents the wheel, but you’re gonna have a helluva fun time with it. You might even see it twice with a group of friends. It’s no classic, but it certainly exceeded my expectations of being a middle of the road soulless product (which is more than I can say for something like “American Gangster”, which from the advertising looked to be its most comparable competitor). You know you’re doing something right when the main flaw of the film is that at two hours, it’s too short.
Whitey Bulger is one of the ultimate gangster stories. He was the untouchable crime king of South Boston in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and a Massachusetts legend who turned out to be the one thing he publicly despised–an informer. Caked under layers of makeup that had me concerned for its authenticity, Johnny Depp turns in his best performance since Sweeney Todd (then again, all we’ve had from him since are a string of flops and some Jack Sparrow appearances or ripoffs like Alice in Wonderland). He’s tough as nails, he’s intimidating–he’s Whitey. It’s not Oscar-worthy, but it’s impressive. Usually a make-up heavy performance sacrifices subtle emotions for a general glaze of familiarity with the real-life subject–but surprisingly, a real humanity shines through, and one is not distracted by the artifice on display (except for the few times his unnecessary blue eye contacts are slightly off-center). All the acting feels right, except for the baffling choice of Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger, who brings an out-of-place elegance to someone who at best tried to learn and fake such a demeanor beyond his South Boston roots. But on the whole, Scott Cooper, whom I would regard as an actor’s director first and foremost (and here has made his best film, though again, we’re comparing it to the insufferable Crazy Heart and the so-so Out of the Furnace), directs every performance toward wholly convincing ends.
The film’s relationship to Martin Scorsese, arguably the king of the genre, is paradoxical. Taking place in the same city of Boston as Scorsese’s “The Departed” (Jack Nicholson’s character was even loosely based off Bulger), this film is easily more authentic to the Boston I know and love. Unlike “The Departed”, where you could almost feel the air-conditioning coming from every overly-quaffed movie star’s trailer in-between takes amidst phony Boston accents – here in “Black Mass”, you can feel the tacky wood paneling of a 1940s Boston bar, you can see the blood-blisters on the real Irish cop’s nose, and yes, you can hear actual credible Boston accents. It’s the real deal.
Of course, no one can dare approach Scorsese’s technical virtuosity or his infamous knack for music moments (though “Black Mass”’s brief use of the opening chords of Joe Walsh’s “Turn To Stone” is the only time it comes close–and at least it doesn’t try to squeeze in a Rolling Stones cut for the umpteenth time).
One thing I must say is that “Black Mass” is hearty. Shot on real film, and composed in old school wide master shots with a lack of fast-cutting–it has a tangibility missing from most wimpy digital cinema these days. It’s like a thick lamb stew at an Irish pub with a Guinness. Simple, plebeian perhaps, but goddamn, it’s satisfying!
Speaking of food, the film also features an absolutely show-stopping scene (that unfortunately was already featured in the film’s first trailer, though don’t hold that against it just because the marketing department jumped the gun). At dinner, Bulger asks one of the FBI agents he’s informing about how he marinated the delicious steak he’s eating, to which the man says he won’t tell because it’s a family secret. Bulger slightly eggs the man on to tell him anyway. The man readily concedes that it’s simply “ground garlic and a little soy.” Just like that, in a flash, Bulger’s friendly demeanor sinks into that of an ice king as he quietly but sinisterly chastises the man for giving up his family secret so easily, because that could easily mean in another situation, that man could give up something far more important and delicate, like Whitey’s involvement with the FBI. The man insists he was “just saying.” Bulger counters that “just saying” is what gets people thrown in jail. “Just saying” is what gets snitches buried. The scene is nothing short of chilling, and perfectly exemplifies the thin line between friendly banter and deadly threats that is necessary to survive the world of the mafia.
On the whole, as far as entertainment is concerned, “Black Mass” is top of the line–better than any superhero extravaganza you could hope for (then again, Bulger himself is a real-life supervillain). Does it fall short? Yes. Could I really tell you why? Not completely–perhaps it has something to do with the stiff competition it faces in the genre, or some other intangibly missing ingredient? But you’ll have a guaranteed great time.