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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Black Mass Hole: How Scott Cooper's Vision of the Whitey Bulger Story Ruined the Film

James J. “Whitey” Bulger is one of the most notorious gangsters in American history. He is responsible for at least 19 murders plus extortion, racketeering, and drug trafficking. With Steve Flemmi and Kevin Weeks by his side, Bulger and The Winter Hill Gang terrorized South Boston for decades. The actual events of Whitey Bulger's life are so damn interesting that a Hollywood version of his life should have given us a better movie than the final product of Black Mass.

Black Mass is directed by Scott Cooper. The film uses the same techniques that Cooper has used on Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, his first two feature films, and Cooper's fingerprints are very much on all three of his movies. All three films are methodically paced, bleak-looking, character-driven, and frankly often times outright boring. I actually enjoyed Out of the Furance, but I understand its 53% Rotten Tomatoes score. Crazy Heart, despite being an excellent showcase for Jeff Bridges' talent, is a dull and meandering film. Black Mass pulls a little bit from both of Cooper's previous films as this is an excellent showcase for Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger but moves with a sense of purpose from scene to scene. All three of Cooper's films are extremely character-driven, often times to the story's detriment. That was the case here with Black Mass as this story deserves an action-packed, fast pace script. There was no reason Black Mass couldn't be this generation's Goodfellas- interesting characters that were fun to be with that, while still being plot driven, never lost sight of its characters. Unfortunately, I'll have to "settle" for this generation's actual version of the Whitey Bulger story- The Departed.

Despite the fact that Black Mass is character-driven, it spends way too much time with its co-lead, Joel Edgerton's John Connolly, and the film refuses to focus on the relationship Whitey Bulger had with his second-in-commands Flemmi and Weeks. As despicable of a human being as Whitey Bulger was, Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemmons) were no better. While Flemmi does get some significant screen time, Weeks is basically a background character and Whitey's driver. I understand a movie needs to make sacrifices somewhere, but strengthening  Flemmi's and Week's relationship to Bulger would have strengthened Bulger as a character and therefore the entire film as a whole.

And getting back to John Connolly, Bulger's friend in the FBI who essentially allows Bulger to run rampant in Boston, the entire second act mainly focuses on him. As good of a job as Joel Edgerton did in the role, and as important as Connolly's (in)actions are to this story, it needed to have taken a backseat to Whitey's story. Or, the film could have been entirely told through John Connolly's perspective, and that could have been an interesting take; however, Black Mass uses Connolly as way to tell Bulger's story while also detracting from it, 

Black Mass starts off in 1975. This was already a first strike in my book, because we never see Whitey entering the thug life at a young age, we never see Whitey's time in the Air Force, and we never see Whitey's time in Alcatraz prison for armed robbery. But fine, the movie needs to made sacrifices somewhere. At this point in time, Whitey is fully entrenched as a major crime player. At this time, the Italian mob is running the North End while Whitey is running South Boston and both sides are coming at their wits end. The problem Black Mass has in its first act is that it outright tells its audience this as opposed to showing them. We hear a local cop acting as a messenger for the Italian mob to Whitey and we hear people at the FBI talk about how bad the Italian mob is, but we never see it. By never gaining any perspective of the Italian mob, there's never any real excitement as the war between the Italians and Whitey grows. By not creating any real tension for this potential mob war, we never care about any of the action that follows it. 

Both Whitey Bulger and the FBI want to eradicate the Italian mob (the FBI because the Italians are their #1 priority at this point and Whitey because he wants to control all of Boston) so Whitey and John Connolly "form an alliance" to help take them down. Again, this could have been interesting as we see an intersection between The Winter Hill Gang and the Italian mob and the FBI, but again we get a lot of yelling at the FBI headquarters, and no tension and no drama whatsoever. This was yet another opportunity for the film to give the audience the story it deserves to see, but instead uses major characters as basically newspaper clippings of exposition. 

There is a lot of that in Black Mass, scenes that have a potential for tension and drama yet end up telling this audience- "yup, this is something else that really happened as we're pulling it out of this book we're basing the movie off of"- instead of showing us. Sure, there are a lot of deaths and some violence in the movie, but ultimately it isn't very effective as the film refused to grab a hold of its audience and make them care about these characters. Black Mass has the same problem that many biopics have where you get scenes that exist because it happened in real life, but they aren't presented cohesively within a film making story.

Despite its major glaring flaws, Black Mass does do a lot of the little things right. Johnny Deep's White Bulger make-up is excellent- it's obviously prosthetic, but it is subtle and does not cross into Dicaprio-in-J-Edgar territory. Further, the Boston accents of its major characters are also very good, a problem that affects and ruins so many other projects set in Beantown. Also, I thought Cooper's focus on the little things like the specific hot dog bun Bostonians use and the glassware these characters use that I've also personally used while visiting my grandparents in Boston was a nice touch.[1] These were all especially important factors considering the film needed to please its main ticket buying audience

However, the little things were not good enough to overcome the fact that Black Mass missed the forest for the trees. Whitey Bulger was such a powerful and omnipresent force of nature in Boston, yet we never get a sense of this in the film. Despite Black Mass spanning over decades with multiple characters, the film feels claustrophobic. 

In what I feel like was a purposeful attempt to make a film that was neither cliche nor Scorsese-esque, it left me wanting to watch a cliche, Scorsese-esque film. I can understand the creative difficulty of creating a Gangster Movie in 2015's landscape and having to tell a real life story that was the actual basis for at least one Martin Scorsese film, but this tall order can be completed. Netflix's original series Narcos, released only weeks before Black Mass, proves that you can create a fun gangster story that's original and enjoyable yet still be a creatively blatant ripoff of GoodfellasI don't know that I would have wanted Martin Scorsese to direct the Whitey Bulger biopic per se, but I do know that Scott Cooper, and his style and brand of film making, was not the correct person for this task. What makes Cooper's swing-and-a-miss even more frustrating is that I don't think we will ever be able to get the Whitey Bulger movie we deserve thanks to Black Mass's existence.

Instead of seeing Black Mass, turn on Netflix and watch Joe Berlinger's documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. After Bulger's arrest in 2011 in California, he was brought back to Boston to face trial for his decades of criminal activity. The film follows Bulger's trial while also telling the audience his life story. Not only does Whitey give its audience a coherent and cohesive account of the Whitey Bulger story, but it focuses a lot on the victim's families which helps humanize and ground this fantastical epic. Growing up with parents who lived in the Boston area and with family who still lives there, I knew all about Whitey Bulger. After seeing Whitey a few months before I saw Black Mass, my expectations for Black Mass were pretty high. I knew how much material a Hollywood writer and director had to work with and how this story was rife for a feature length film. Instead, we're struck with Scott Cooper's vision of these events. Instead of a fun, action-packed, interesting and compelling gangster movie, we're stuck with a boring attempt at a character study. 


[1] While I enjoyed the little Boston touches, apparently my Dad, who was born and raised in the area and lived there for half of his life did notice some anachronisms. One was that the exterior shots of the Federal building was actually the Boston Police Headquarters and secondly was the Coors signs hanging in bars during scenes that took place in the 1970's as Coors was famously not sold east of the Mississippi River for a long time. So... close enough?



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