Johnny Depp’s performance as real-life criminal James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is just another anemic reflection of film noir, the once-virile genre that gave birth to the gangster as American antihero and offered a cautionary tale for the collective subconscious
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Juno Temple, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Running time: 122 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
While I was doing a broadcast review of Black Mass, I inadvertently referred to the title of Scott Cooper’s new film as “Black Mask.” It was one of those famously titled incidents of parapraxis, and now that I’ve had a moment to light a cigar and reflect on my Freudian faux-pas, I realize why my feelings about this shiny chunk of Oscar bait were so slippery.
It’s not just that Johnny Depp is literally wearing a mask throughout the performance as a result of all the prosthetics necessary to make the puppy-eyed Edward Scissorhands disappear; it’s that Cooper’s visually lubricated recreation of James “Whitey” Bulger’s rise and fall as king of the Boston underworld is such a pale imitation of noir.
You can’t blame Cooper, the actor-turned-director who emerged with Crazy Heart, for the flaw. The sad irony is that for all the gangster films flooding cinemas, it’s almost impossible to see any trace of the genre’s true roots.
Gangsters are as much a part of the American cinematic landscape as cowboys and Tom Hanks movies, and their place in the collective psyche is just as important. The outlaw and the harbinger dark justice, the gangster assumed a lead role with the birth of film noir in the ‘40s, when America went off to war and lost its romanticized, Technicolor innocence.
The hero in the white Stetson was pushed aside, replaced by atypical leading men such as James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in shadow-friendly fedoras. These new antiheroes were capable of grotesque crimes, but there was something about their way that would make us care about the outcome — and it was a sense of connection.
These were fallen angels forced to survive outside Hollywood Eden, and in their craggy features lit by unfiltered light, we could see all the wrinkles of the human condition. We knew that we, too, were somehow complicit in the denouement because we secretly understood the darker motives.
As a result, film noir is nothing less than a cautionary tale for the subconscious, and when it really works, you feel it somewhere deep inside: A grudging acknowledgement of Mr. Hyde masticating your frontal lobe, sucking on secretly dark desires. And any gangster movie that doesn’t provoke some hint of this response is probably nothing more than gratuitous violence caked and baked in Hollywood grease: garbage food for the grey cells.
With a supporting cast that includes the ever-classy Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Joel Egerton and Peter Sarsgaard playing before seamless period production design, Black Mass was clearly striving for something substantial, but neither Depp nor the movie itself plunge any deeper than gangster cliché.
Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth stick to the surface, giving us a blow-by-bloody-blow account of Bulger’s life as he moves from south side leader of the Winter Hill gang to unrivaled crime lord of Massachusetts.
Using Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book as their guide, the filmmakers hang most of the narrative arc on Jimmy’s surprising collaboration with the FBI, facilitated by an old buddy from “Southie” named John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
John is an ambitious young agent looking to make a name for himself, so when he successfully enlists Jimmy as an informant, he feels a titillating surge of power. His ego swells and before long, he’s strutting into the senate office of Jimmy’s older brother (Cumberbatch) with unmistakable swagger.
John doesn’t realize that Jimmy is simply using him to eliminate his enemies, and that’s where Cooper’s film finds the most dramatic power thanks to Edgerton’s ability to articulate the slow transformation from committed officer of the law to power-hungry conspirator.
John morphs into a brand of gangster, but his big ego eclipses the truth. He convinces himself he’s doing something worthy and that he’s a friend of the people fulfilling the folk hero side of the gangster archetype. But of course, it’s all a mask.
Because Edgerton is an incredible actor, we can feel the moral lapse. More importantly, we can feel the fear, and in turn, buy into Depp’s cartoon pastiche of gangster archetype that draws on everything from Joe Pesci to Marlon Brando.
Looking like Ray Liotta behind the contacts, Depp is not immediately convincing as a Mephistophelian force, but the supporting cast makes it work because they sell a convincing reaction. Fear is primal, and a great performer will trigger an instinctive reflex if they convey believable terror.
Everyone around Depp is able to conjure a skin-crawling sentiment, which explains why the most powerful scenes in the film are the ones in which Depp barely speaks and the camera lingers on the sweaty upper lip of the co-star.
On his own, Depp is emotionally and dramatically flat, but surrounded by these talented character actors, we get a sense of the stifled humanity and the moral abdication – central ingredients of film noir.
Sadly, Cooper doesn’t shape them into anything more than gangster procedural, a slick chronology of real events orchestrated to be as cinematic as possible. Successful film noir has to fall down the abyss screaming. We have to feel the leaden thump of the bloody landing, but Black Mass glides to a gentle finish because Depp’s Bulger is feather-light when it comes to character.
There’s no fiery “top of the world!” speech in the tradition of White Heat, no moment of uncomfortable connection to make us squirm. Black Mass is well executed, but it’s empty: A lifeless mask concealing what used to be the human face of accessible sin, and in turn, the dark heart of film noir.