TV Writer Chris Goodwin (China, IL) Talks Scott Cooper’s Black Mass

A Boston native who grew up during the time of Whitey Bulger's reign sizes up this movie about the mobster's legend.

I’m currently watching Narcos on Netflix, and six episodes in I’m mostly enjoying it. The story of the rise of Pablo Escobar and the DEA’s quest to nab him, it’s a dense tale that spans both continents and time periods. It was a wise decision to make Narcos as episodic TV; I can’t imagine ever being tasked with stuffing all this into a two-hour film. (Or maybe a three-hour film if you’re lucky, or happen to be Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann.)

And this is just one of the problems with Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, which tries to tackle the vastness of the story of Whitey Bulger in just 122 minutes. The true tale of the infamous Boston mob boss spans about 40 years, and there’s a lot going on in those 40 years.

Cooper and his writers, Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (adapting Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s non-fiction book Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss), try to tell three stories here: the rise of Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) and the circumstances that lead to his eventual role as FBI informant; the story of FBI Agent John Connolly (played here by Joel Edgerton), who grew up with Bulger and brought him into the FBI fold to basically protect him; and the betrayal of Bulger, as every criminal who ever worked for him and profited from his murderous ways eventually flipped and ratted him out to the feds – with only Connolly staying true to the end.

The result of this narrative congestion is that the impact of each story is dulled and diminished. There’s a huge amount to cover here, including the multifaceted relationship Bulger had with his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch, who could have used Sherlock Holmes’ help finding him a better accent), who was a Massachusetts Senator. For all the good material here – and some of the scenes in Black Mass are really strong – there’s simply not enough time to tell all these stories.

For example, the film introduces us to Kevin Weeks, a hit man for Bulger played nicely by Jesse Plemons. Weeks is the first character we meet in the movie, and we see how Weeks gains access into Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. It’s a good 10-minute sequence, as he’s our surrogate into this world, a Southie gangster version of Peggy Olson in Mad Men.

But after these initial scenes, Weeks is tossed to the side as Bulger and Connolly become the main characters. It’s unimportant how Weeks met Bulger, but we need to know how Connolly became friends with Bulger and why he remained so loyal if we’re to have any sense of emotional attachment to the characters. In The Departed, it was smart to show a young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) meeting Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello – two characters based on Connolly and Bulger, respectively – because it made us understand their relationship instantly. And speaking of The Departed, that film really did take the wind of out of Black Mass’ sails. Though this is the true story of Bulger, Scorsese’s movie is just a better telling of the Whitey legend, and it makes me that much more impressed that screenwriter William Monahan and Scorsese saw a chance to incorporate it within the framework of their remake of Infernal Affairs.

As for the acting in Black Mass, Johnny Depp is good here, but I’m disappointed in his reliance on makeup and some familiar acting tactics to bring Bulger to life. Depp sees him as a monster, so he plays him to look and act like one. Much like he’d do in a Tim Burton movie. I wish he had approached this role with more subtlety and humanity, as he did in the very underrated Donnie Brasco. Of the supporting performances, I was really impressed by Dakota Johnson in her brief appearance as Bulger’s first wife. Joel Edgerton nails the Boston accent and cocky persona, but the film could delve a lot deeper into what’s really going on with his conflicted lawman.

If I seem hard on Black Mass, it’s because I grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts, a city 20 minutes outside of Boston. Coming from there, I was pretty much expected to like Black Mass; when I told my father that I didn’t love it, he sounded disappointed and surprised (that is, until he saw the film himself and ended up agreeing with me).

Since Good Will Hunting, almost every Boston-set studio film has been about heavy criminal activity, murder, church sex scandals or bank-robbing thugs dressed as nuns. How dark can it get? I can see someone making a movie of the 1986 Red Sox blowing the World Series, which would just be a two-hour looped clip of Bill Buckner letting the ball roll through his glove.

I remember watching Paul Feig’s The Heat, and noticing that everyone in the movie is either a cop, a criminal or a sports fan who confuses Boston athletes for religious figures. (That’s admittedly kind of funny.) And whenever I’ve seen Lynn in a movie, it’s mostly the setting for a murder scene in a parking lot or the discovery of a dead body near a marsh (excuse me, a “MAHHSH”). It’s strange that the only normal version of Boston recently seen on film has been in the Ted movies, which are comedies about a pothead and his foul-mouthed teddy bear. Every other Boston-set production seems to be going for gritty because that’s ostensibly the road to awards glory. The aforementioned The Departed, the Oscar-winning film that cemented Boston in Hollywood’s eyes as the premier setting for crime pictures, is kind of to blame for this trend, but unlike those other films it was written by a Bostonian who understood the city, and it felt authentic to me. (It’s also a classic in its genre, and hands-down one of the funniest movies of the past 10 years.)

Though I love gangster films and think the Whitey Bulger story needs to be told – even if only for people to see the suffering this man brought to the people of Boston – Black Mass doesn’t feel like the right rendering of that story. The film is perfectly serviceable, I just wish the thrust of the narrative was different – or that I could have binge-watched it as a series on Netflix.

Chris Goodwin is a comedy writer/producer living in Los Angeles. Chris has been recently working as a TV staff writer, for shows such as China, IL, for Adult Swim, and Lucas Bros. Moving Co. and Major Lazer, for FXX.