I saw Black Mass yesterday and while I don’t have time for a full review, here are some quick observations.
First, it has to be mentioned that having Benedict Cumberbatch play William Bulger is one of most egregious miscastings I have ever seen. Billy Bulger couldn’t possibly look more Irish, he’s essentially a living leprechaun: a round faced, sawed off runt with a twinkle in his eye. Benedict Cumberbatch, on the hand, resembles a science experiment involving grey aliens and 500 years of good WASP inbreeding. I would love to have seen the look on Billy Bulger’s face when he sees the toffee nosed Englishman who is meant to be him, Billy Bulger, a man who spent every St. Patrick’s Day year after year singing Irish fighting songs at his televised breakfasts in South Boston (in between jibes at other politicians and saying things like “my wife, she’s really a great kid”). Also, Cumberbatch has to literally be a foot taller than Bulger, a man frequently referred to by Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr as “the corrupt midget.” If you remove the Napoleon complex from Bulger, you are basically left with a blank slate.
There’s a later scene in the movie where we see Bulger in his office at the State House in Boston, a room full of burnished leather furniture, old paintings, elaborate woodwork, and a large antique desk. The frisson that should be implied by what Morley Safer called “the little Irishman from Southie holding court in what was once the preserve of the Protestant Brahmin” in a 1992 60 Minutes piece is completely lost with Cumberbatch’s aristocratic head sitting behind the desk. Instead of looking like the scrappy project rat who crawled his way to the top, Cumberbatch looks like the bit player in some Masterpiece Theater period piece who’s about to pick up the phone and tell his servant to bring him some fresh scones.
In addition, Cumberbach’s accent is particularly confusing as he sounds a bit like someone from the North of Ireland with a little FDR and W.C. Fields thrown in. It’s possibly the worst Boston accent on film, maybe even worse than Martin Sheen’s in The Departed (similar to the way that the voice of Chewbacca was made by mixing the sound of roaring bears with barking sea lions, the voice of Martin Sheen in the Departed was made by mixing John F. Kennedy with a braying donkey).
On the bright side, Joel Edgerton is great as Whitey’s FBI handler John Connolly. Edgerton claimed that “rather than try to master a generic Boston accent, he studied footage and recordings of John Connolly” and clearly that work paid off. He captures Connolly’s backslapping bonhomie and swagger, perfectly encapsulating a certain type of Bostonian. Just as places have accents, they also have mannerisms. To portray someone from Southern California requires more than just a dudeish accent, it also requires laid back body language. When you play someone from New York, you should look and move as if you’ve ate thousands of slices of pizza, hailed hundreds of late night cabs, and jumped a turnstile or two. Playing someone from Boston is harder to put into neat cliches, but whatever it requires, Edgerton captures it. There are very few actors not from Boston who can portray someone from Boston believably (Jeremy Renner’s work in both The Town and Louie are wonderful examples) and Edgerton can be added to that short list.
Edgerton’s performance aside, the movie never really feels like Boston. Certainly the locations are there, everyone aside from Cumberbatch and Corey Stoll (as federal prosecuter Fred Wyshak) seem to doing their best at talking Boston, but mentions of Red Sox tickets and Joe DiNucci aside, it sort of feels like it could be anywhere. It feels like ANY sort of crime docudrama grafted onto Boston.
Ultimately though, that’s not what dooms this movie. The problem is, it’s too milquetoast; it’s not really any particular type of movie and doesn’t take any moral stance. Despite how it appeared in the trailer, it’s not an energetic Scorsese crime flick. Although the systematic corruption in the FBI is touched upon, it doesn’t fully condemn it, like say All the President’s Men. Despite claims of accuracy, it’s not a document of what REALLY happened, either. For example, the portrayal of Stevie Flemmi was particularly terrible. Stevie Flemmi plead guilty to ten murders and was in every way Whitey Bulger’s match in psychopathy, but the movie portrays him as some moody, chubby, sad sack who’s just going along with Whitey, in both becoming an FBI informant and murdering women. The irony is rich because in both points, Flemmi was the leader. Flemmi had a informant relationship with the FBI that was almost a decade old before Whitey became an informer, so showing him as being surprised by Whitey’s reveal is dumb. Also, although the movie shows Whitey and Flemmi murder Flemmi’s stepdaughter/girlfriend Deborah Hussey, it also again shows Whitey to be the initiator. What the movie neglects to mention is this is the second of Flemmi’s girlfriends to be murdered by the pair in a span of a few years. From that info alone, one could concur that it was Flemmi who was the issue there, not Whitey. So, the note of having Flemmi seem remorseful over that murder rings false to me. On a similar note, the idea of showing Whitey pushed over the edge after the death of his son, when at that point Whitey already had many murders under his belt (as that death occurred at the height of the South Boston gang wars between Whitey’s Killeen gang and the Mullen gang) seems farfetched as well.
I just wish that instead of doing a standard 70’s period piece, they had played a little looser with it. Show us Whitey growing up in the first housing project in Boston during the Great Depression, raised by a father who lost an arm working on the docks. Or show Whitey running off to join the circus during the dawn of World War 2. Show us teenage Whitey’s first petty crimes. Indulge in some hokey special effects to portray Whitey’s 50 or so LSD trips taken at Alcatraz as part of the MKUltra program. Shit, show Whitey canoodling in prison with his rumored Native American lover, the Choctaw Kid. Anything but another retread 70’s gangster movie.