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Reviewed by:
  • Black Mass dir. by Scott Cooper
  • Michael Ray FitzGerald
Black Mass ( 2015) Directed by Scott Cooper Produced by Scott Cooper, John Lescher, Warner Brothers 123 minutes

After appearing in several of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean fantasies as well as the absurd Lone Ranger fiasco, Johnny Depp astutely realized he had to do some serious acting in order to resuscitate his reputation. Depp himself delivers the goods with Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper. However, strong acting alone does not make a strong film.

This is not the first movie about Boston crime lord James "Whitey" Bulger, 87, who is serving a life sentence without parole. In 2006, Jack Nicholson played a character loosely based on Bulger in The Departed. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon also had a similar project in development, which they have since abandoned.

There are risks and responsibilities involved when writing a story about real people, using their real names—especially while they are still alive. As dastardly a criminal as Bulger probably was, Black Mass is still not a fair portrayal, nor does it give viewers credit for possessing any insight. The film is based on the 2000 book of the same title by Dick Lehr and Gerard K. O'Neill. What is the title Black Mass supposed to imply? Is it intended to suggest that Bulger's murders were in some way related to satanic rituals? Co-author Lehr told a Boston Globe reporter that the title is a metaphor for the FBI's corruption, with Bulger as the devil. It's a cheap shot, and the film follows suit. Black Mass would have been a deeper film had it not been so cut-and-dried. It works too hard to paint Bulger as demonic and, in this sense, it [End Page 125] is a throwback to the quaint Hollywood gangster movies of yesteryear.

The first noticeable flaw is Depp's makeup. There is too much of it. Not only does it look fake and create a distraction, but it's as if the filmmakers were trying to paint a caricature of evil. The oversized blue contact lenses serve to make him look demonic. They are overly obvious and visually manipulative; the only thing missing is fangs.

The acting is strong throughout, especially by Depp, but the script has major flaws. Black Mass contains scenes that do not work, even in context of the film's own internal logic. A script should not raise questions only to annoy viewers by eliding these very questions. For example, what happened to Bulger's girlfriend, Lindsey Cyr, after her son with Bulger died? Newspaper interviews with the real-life Cyr indicate that she and Bulger remained on amicable terms for decades. But in Black Mass, she simply vanishes from the story, as does F.B.I agent John Connolly's wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson).

The scene in which Bulger menaces Marianne while she hides away in her bedroom to avoid her husband's new friends is problematic, to say the least. It seems likely that it was invented in order to utterly demonize Bulger, and it goes over the top. Although it is never possible to make a film accurate in every detail, and sometimes scenarios must be invented to serve the story, this scene does not work. All three figures involved suddenly, inexplicably reverse their characterizations. Connolly (Joel Edgerton) is usually depicted as a defiant, indomitable character who, for example, is willing to get into a fistfight with his boss (played by Kevin Bacon) for the sake of honor. It is unlikely he would allow anyone, even Bulger, to go upstairs in order to intimidate or molest his wife. As he repeatedly avers, Connolly lives by a code. Hence he would have been impelled to do his duty as a husband to protect her; otherwise he would have disgraced himself, in his own eyes. The film hardly bothers to address the consequences of Connolly's inaction, and his wife thereupon simply evaporates. This is far out of character for Marianne, who is previously depicted as a feisty type who would hardly have tolerated such abuse. Rather than resisting or at least screaming for...


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pp. 125-127
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