Black Mass, or how I learned to love one of my least favorite movie tropes
Name five soulless, relentlessly evil criminals from the movies.
Characters who are defined by their utter disregard for human life.
Characters who scare the life out of everyone else on screen, usually before actually killing one of them.
It’s not hard.
Here, I’ll do it:
Tommy from Goodfellas
Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs
Nicky from Casino
Mr. French from The Departed
Frank Booth from Blue Velvet
That’s not a comprehensive list. It’s just from the top of my head. The point is that this was not a hard exercise, and I could probably poll ten people and get ten lists with very little crossover.
The allure of the psychotic mobster in crime fiction is obvious: having a character who is nothing but menacing, who might decide to shoot or stab anyone at any time, can create tension in any scene they are in. Which is why it’s one of the tropes that I have long grown tired of. It’s not tension created from stakes inherent to the film’s story. It’s a cheaper sort of tension, a preemptive visceral reaction to bloodshed. Joe Pesci does give an electric performance as Tommy in Goodfellas, but behind the constant boiling is a character who is never fully humanized, never given much to do beyond snapping and killing at random. The brilliance of Pesci’s performance in a scene like this masks that we are never shown why on earth his friends would hang out with him in the first place. Scenes like the bar scene in Inglorious Basterds are more compelling because they begin innocuously and slowly back into an inescapable corner. Characters like this turn every scene into the corner, and not all of them have performances as good as Pesci’s to turn a writing shortcut into a gripping scene.
Walking into Black Mass I prepared myself for a movie chock full of this sort of brutal shorthand. Whitey Bulger’s violent reign over Boston organized crime was operatic in its grisliness. As I settled into my seat, I was prepared for an endless parade of face-stomping, neck-stabbing, and snap judgment executions. All I wondered beforehand was how soon it would be before the film exceeded my tolerance level for such carnage.
Only the barrage never came. And, to my surprise, I think the film was actually worse off for it.
I don’t think Black Mass simply needed more gore. It’s a solid but dry crime movie, elevated by some excellent performances, especially from Johnny Depp as Bulger and Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, the corrupt FBI agent in cahoots with him. Depp tries his damnedest to create an indelible character in Whitey Bulger. He doesn’t quite succeed. He snarls and seethes but he doesn’t snap. When he kills a longtime colleague, a voiceover explains that he suspected the guy had ratted out a friend and gotten him killed. In the world of mob movies, less frightening characters have done much more frightening things. Nothing Whitey does in this movie exceeds the crimes of Clemenza in The Godfather, and I defy you to find someone who watches The Godfather who doesn’t love Clemenza. Yes, he’s a killer, but he brings his wife cannoli.
Perhaps it sounds like I have developed a sudden and out of character craving for wanton violence. I think (hope?) it’s more complex than that. Black Mass‘s edge is too dull to shock, and its narrative too shallow to derive much emotion from scenes clearly intended to be charged. Consider the scene where Bulger strangles Deborah Hussey (Juno Temple), the girlfriend of his enforcer Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). He carries out the hit right in front of Flemmi. The camera moves away from Bulger and Hussey, and focuses strictly on Flemmi’s reaction. Cochrane’s acting in the scene sells it. Through minuscule changes in his expression he conveys the conflict between sadness and loyalty. That, in turn, sells us on how deeply twisted Flemmi must be to be conflicted at all over the horror unfolding in front of him.
However, the performances outshine the writing. We barely know Hussey and Flemmi as characters when she is murdered. In shying away from the violence of her murder, the film, director Scott Cooper seems to be attempting to focus on human emotions. This isn’t unwelcome, but if you are going to humanize this story, you need fully dimensional characters. A tragedy without an arc is simply violence and death. Three characters are in this scene, and only one of them, Bulger, has been given any dimension.
For that matter, the dimension given to Bulger mostly attempts to humanize him. Again, this isn’t necessarily a problem; crime movies more often than not ask us to empathize with killers. But the script refers to Bulger as a “sociopath” time and time again, without ever demonstrating why Bulger was so feared. Yes, he is shown killing people. Again, Coppola never asked us to be scared of Clemenza, who carries out the exact same sorts of crimes Bulger is shown committing in this film. But Clemenza was a fictional character. Bulger’s victims were real, and the film owes it to us to treat his crimes with greater gravity. In The Godfather, “it’s just business” is repeated in the face of brutality until we see it’s a lie. Black Mass seems too intent on convincing us that Bulger actually meant it. At best, it’s a copout for Cooper to go out of his way to make each of Bulger’s killings “strictly business”. At worst, it’s callous.
Black Mass wants to be a work of cinematic journalism, and yet the facts of the story it’s trying to tell are far more lurid and grotesque than it’s willing to depict. Which brings me back to my original point: I usually find the “maniac mobster who kills for sport” trope to be tiring and unnecessary. But here was a movie that actually kind of needed it, or at least a shadow of it. Most mob movies are based on fictional or otherwise deeply fictionalized characters, and if you turn their violence up to 11, it can become their only defining characteristic. But with this story, and these characters, you need to capture that unrelenting sense of menace.