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Paddy Wacked: A Review of “Black Mass” (2015)
Scott Cooper, director of Crazy Heart (2009) and the underrated Out of the Furnace (2013), has a movie which starts off solid, but slowly fizzles. Told from the perspective of Bulger’s former gang members: Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), and Johnny “The Basin Street Butcher” Martorano (W. Earl Brown), Black Mass starts off good enough. When we are introduced to Bulger, it is haunting. His darkened, disgusted face fills the screen as he growls to Martorano to stop licking his fingers while eating peanuts at a bar. As the film progresses we see Bulger commit a number of grizzly crimes, which includes strangling Flemmi’s young stepdaughter, Deborah Hussey (Juno Temple), to death because he suspects that she is an informant.

In Hits, Wacks, and Smokes: The Celluloid Gangster as a Horror Icon, Catherine Don Diego argues that “some of the most terrifying realist horror offerings in the cinema are better known as gangster movies.” Diego argues that the mayhem and murder portrayed on screen in a gangster movie is far more frightening than a supernatural based horror movie because it is based in reality. That is what I feel Black Mass is trying to do, but never ultimately succeeds. Despite us seeing Bulger strangle people to death, including a young woman, the film never really builds the cult of personality that Bulger had in Boston. At the time he was in power, he was almost like the boogeyman.

One of the opening shots of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2008), which is loosely based off of Bulger, captures what Black Mass fails to. A POV shot of Irish gang boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) walking into a diner/drug store almost makes him seem like a murderous celebrity; someone who is instantly recognizable, but at the same time feared and avoided. That seems to be the biggest problem of Black Mass; it fails to capture the world of South Boston. This one shot from The Departed captures more of the spirit of Bulger, and his reputation with the people of Boston, than the entire film of Black Mass does. Black Mass also fails to capture the underworld of South Boston. The film fails to mention the Irish gang wars of the 1960s, which Bulger was conveniently in prison for, and created the vacuum which would lead to his rise in power. The film also breezes over, and in one scene, unrealistically depicts Bulger’s relationship with the Boston Mafia.

The sins of Black Mass would be more forgivable if it didn’t have an amazing cast. Compared to his body of work over the past few years, Johnny Deep does gives a good performance. Before this, I never really was sold on Johnny Deep as the tough guy. This really worked to his advantage in Donnie Brasco (1997), where he played an FBI agent pretending to be a mobster, but worked to his disadvantage in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), where I feel he was a tad too effeminate to play John Dillinger. But in Black Mass, Depp does give a solid performance as Bulger. One major criticism of Deep’s performance, is that it’s not accurate to the real Whitey Bulger. Both Deep and Cooper refused to consult with the now imprisoned Bulger, or any of his former gang members. While this may give them the moral high ground to sleep better at night, this may have contributed to the film less than authentic feel. Both in Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), Scorsese consulted with real mobsters for both movies.

Joel Edgerton, who plays FBI agent John Connolly, is wasted in the movie. Edgerton, who is an amazing actor, seems to be the victim of a poor script. There is no conflict with Connolly, who is painfully one dimensional. The same with Benedict Cumberbach as William “Billy” Bulger; Whitey’s brother and a member of the Massachusetts State Senate. There is little build in the relationship between the two brothers, which makes the scene at the end of the film between them unwarranted. For me, the star of the movie is Rory Cochrane as Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, one of Bulger’s henchmen. Chochrane’s somber, calculated performance of a psychotic hitman steals the show for me. He is a great contrast to Deep’s animated, almost over the top portrayal of Bulger.

While I may seem hard on Black Mass (I usually am on gangster movies), I did enjoy it. It is filmed beautifully, the shot behind the car when the guns are being handed out is one of my favorites, and it’s a grim, brutal portrayal of Bulger and his gang. I liked that the film included Bulger’s willing participation in the CIA’s MKULTRA program while in prison to get a reduced sentence, his participation in smuggling weapons to the IRA, and his infiltration and embezzlement of World Jai Lai.

Joining the amazing The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Departed (2008), and Kill the Irishman (2011); Black Mass is an okay enough addition to the list of Irish gangster movies where the criminals cooperate with the police.
Another great write-up, Gangland.

This is a film that I started one time and got about a half an hour into it when I stopped. Unfortunately, my DVR took a dump and I lost the rest of the movie as well as everything else, so I've never had a chance to finish watching it. What I can remember of the film was pretty decent (very good but unremarkable), so it's interesting to see your point of view for how the rest of the film plays out.

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