Twenty five years ago this month, Martin Scorsese unveiled Goodfellas, a knockout success that gained immediate entry into the American film canon. In case you haven’t seen it (and I would make a plug for it, although this isn’t the place), just know that it’s a disturbingly good-natured romp through the glamorous lives of low-level members of the Italian Mafia.
Despite the various unsavory activities witnessed on screen—brutal slayings, rampant drug abuse, chronic infidelity—the viewer can’t help but idolize and envy what they are seeing in Goodfellas. It’s an uncomfortable film to sit through, but for the very reason of induced introspection, it is a masterpiece. I know it’s because I sat and pondered what it said about myself that I took so much pleasure in watching it.
Maybe in making Black Mass, director Scott Cooper didn’t want to put his viewers through any sort of moral dilemma. But his film is the weaker for it. The problem with Black Mass ultimately lies in its overly simplistic, dare I say childlike treatment of good and evil.
Johnny Depp was an intriguing choice to play James “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston crime kingpin who spent more than fifteen years as a fugitive from the FBI, but his performance ended up being compelling for all the wrong reasons. Whereas the trailers advertised Depp’s usual routine as the quirky yet roguish and charming anti-hero, a “Captain Jack Bulger” if you will, what we got instead was a snarling caricature of a mobster, a villain oozing pure evil from his pores.
On the one hand, I was pleased that Depp stepped away from his usual one-note persona and showed some diversity in his acting, but at the same time it actually served to make the movie boring. Say what you will about Johnny Depp, but he is usually charismatic enough to keep an audience glued to its seat.
Combine that with a story that is about as compelling as the truth can be (Bulger brokered an alliance with the FBI in which he would give up intel concerning the Italian mafia in exchange for operating with impunity) and it seems impossible that the film could be dull. Yet there is never any tension, no uncertainty, no deeper look into the mind of James to see what made him Whitey.
Nothing feels real, from the actions of the mobsters to their appearances. Depp’s eyes are colored an astonishing blue and are a microcosm for the entire film’s believability problem. They are so jarring that it took me right out every scene as soon as there was a closeup. He could bare his teeth and fire off as many rounds as he wanted, I was still entirely unconvinced I was watching a gangster.
A look into the great characters of cinematic history reveals that complexity is key, particularly when the main character is an unsavory type. Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano, of The Godfather and The Sopranos respectively, are two of the most famous and fleshed-out mob characters in film, and treated as works of art because they are so human. We see their familial and social lives and come to empathize with them. We care about what happens to them, and I couldn’t care less about Depp’s Bulger.
And what is perhaps most annoying is Black Mass’s refusal to acknowledge a more rounded portrayal of Whitey is that it could very easily have been done! The man was revered in parts of South Boston, a Robin Hood type figure, yet the film only briefly alludes to this relationship in an ultimately meaningless scene with an elderly neighborhood woman about five minutes in.
Instead, the audience is treated to countless looks at how much of an evil bastard Whitey was, and the lack of variation severely stilts the pacing, making the movie feel like a drag far beyond its two hour run time. If you are a big fan of mob movies, Black Mass might be worth your time just from some of the supporting performances alone (David Harbour was excellent as one of the agents working with Whitey). If not, sit back, relax and pop in Goodfellas for the tenth time.