Friedrich Nietzsche once famously wrote that “he who fights with monsters must take care lest he become a monster” – and that lesson rests at the heart of Scott Cooper’s gangster biopic “Black Mass.” It’s a dark and exceedingly unsettling – but also challenging and provocative – historical drama, powered by a scorching lead performance.
“Black Mass” centers on the long “cooperation” (enabling?) between Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Though the film unfolds from the perspective of Bulger’s FBI handler, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), this is really a biographical piece about Bulger. In the lead role, Depp is a spectral nightmare come to life – conscienceless, psychopathic, a real-world incarnation of Batman’s Joker. It’s highly refreshing to see Depp flexing his acting muscles again after a string of inferior Jack Sparrow imitations; odd the star may be, but when the cards are down, Depp delivers.
That being said, “Black Mass” is weighted down by its highly uneven second act, which becomes downright sluggish at points. The framing story (a series of informants testifying to the police about Bulger’s rise to power through the criminal hierarchy) is distracting at best and leaden at worst – the film doesn’t really come together into a coherent whole until its final moments. That said, the movie’s chopped-and-screwed narrative stylings do evoke a sense of persistent unease and disquiet, which may well be intentional.
Leaving the theater, I actually felt queasy – and given how many grim films I’ve seen, that’s not something I often experience. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the film is rooted in true events: one is left with the deeply unsettling thought that the lines between law enforcement and the criminal underworld are not always clear. As a piece of art, “Black Mass” is largely stripped of any internal moral framework or reference points. It’s a horrifying thing to realize that the FBI’s facilitation of Bulger’s illicit activity was within the scope of what the government is allowed to do. “Black Mass” triggers important questions about the scope of discretion on the parts of prosecutorial authorities: what happens when “the rule of law” itself carries within it a rat’s-nest of murky opportunities for abuse? It’s also suggested that LSD-related experiments on Bulger during his incarceration in Alcatraz were the factors which triggered his malevolence – apparently to drive home the inference that the government made Bulger what he was. Yet this clashes with what viewers see onscreen – the portrait of a monstrously evil figure who’s fully cognizant of the fact that his behavior transgresses moral norms.
Where, then, is a good man to be found? “Black Mass” has no answer. (It’s also worth noting that “Black Mass” has some ruthlessly grisly moments, with an unflinching camera and mic that capture the true grotesquery of Bulger’s activities.)
This is not a “feel-good” gangster movie in the tradition of “Ocean’s Eleven.” “Black Mass” is bleak and turbulent, suffused with an overwhelming sense of paranoia and fear (think David Fincher without the overtly neo-noir ambiance). But if nothing else, it does make one reflect on the need for government accountability – and the ease with which one’s good intentions can slip towards the insidious rationalization of evil. That message is indeed driven home with a vengeance.
A compulsive – if choppy – crime drama fueled by the terrifying energy of a mesmeric Johnny Depp.
Normalized Score: 3.4