It is no surprise that the gangster, an entrepreneurial, zealously individualistic figure ever willing to buck the system, has been a long-standing favourite in American popular culture.
The gangster, usually hero, sometimes villain, often a combination of both, has been frequently interpreted as an originally American phenomenon, developing in response to what historian Arthur Schlesinger called the “rise of the city” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s mythical “frontier” - little more, really, than an apology for American Indian genocide - became “closed,” and urban life began to develop. Along with skyscrapers, poor living conditions and unemployment also rose. This was capped off by the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression.
This context of rapid urban development, the attendant increase in inequality, and resentment towards the Twenty-first Amendment (Prohibition), determined the social and spatial conditions from which emerged the Hollywood gangster.
Actors like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney played the figure to perfection, in epoch defining films such as Warner Bros’ Little Caesar (1931), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).
As the working-class figure who is able to stand out from the rest of the pack, able to transcend class constrictions and “make something of himself,” the American gangster is the epitome of Joseph Schumpeter’s vision of capitalism as “creative destruction.”
Like all American dreams of “self-made” men (regardless of any dubious origins), this immediately captured America’s imagination of itself, along with the world’s imagination of America.
Film critic Robert Warshow discusses the urban essence of the gangster as American hero in what is perhaps the most illuminating analysis of gangster films to date, The Gangster as Tragic Hero. “The gangster is the man of the city,” Warshow writes,
with the city’s language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands like a placard, like a club. … for the gangster there is only the city; he must inhabit it in order to personify it: not the real city, but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world.
Depp, playing real life Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, certainly seems to be channelling his Cagney; but it avoids, unlike myriad other gangster films, any kind of glorification or celebration of its protagonist. It adopts, from about a quarter of the way through, a bleak tone that simply intensifies as the film progresses.
The plot revolves around the relationship between Bulger and the FBI. Bulger’s old neighbourhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, in a suitably rugged performance) approaches Bulger to see if he’s willing to become a “rat.” After some reluctance, Bulger agrees, mostly out of desire to knock out the competition - the local Italian mob, the Angioulos - rather than from any attachment to his former friend.
This relationship leads to ample riches for Bulger, including cash from running Miami’s jai alai racket, but everything begins to unravel when new DA Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) takes a position at the bureau. Spurred on by Whitey’s notoriety, Wyshak queries Connolly’s relationship to Whitey - including his conspicuous lack of arrests.
Initial signs are this will be a sentimental film about a gangster with a heart of gold. Bulger stops the car in an early scene to say hello to an old lady, plays cards with his ageing mother (even when he’s exhausted from a day of gangsterism).
He also acts as a role model for his young son, and seems to have a genuinely affectionate relationship with the mother of his son, Lindsey (Dakota Johnson, who sensibly avoids all S&M contracts and contraptions here). He has, furthermore, a loving relationship with his kid brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a senator who may or may not be corrupt.
However, when his son becomes afflicted with a freak disease on Christmas Day, this rapidly changes. Bulger becomes increasingly terrifying as he becomes more and more paranoid, violently testing relationships with several of his allies in his struggle to maintain power.
The film thus (and refreshingly) veers away from the kind of sentimentality foreshadowed at the beginning.
Ultimately this film has a certain structural and temporal awkwardness, due to the decision to split it into three periods spanning from the 1970s to the 1990s. This awkwardness is often the case with biopics and true stories, for the obvious reason that they don’t fit into Hollywood’s usual neat narrative schemata.
Despite this, Depp is (unusually) brilliant, and his cold-blooded Bulger manages to create, from the outset, a belligerent, menacing tone. Depp is an actor who is very highly rated, yet whose performances in recent years have often seemed overdrawn, overly mannered.
His makeup seems ridiculous at first; it looks like he’s wearing a prosthetic bald head and his contact lenses create an unnerving but rather silly effect. As the film progresses, and the character becomes more ghoulish, his pale, withered face and piercing grey eyes seem to fit the part.
The supporting cast are equally excellent, though the ensemble nature of the film means there are an at times distracting number of recognisable faces in minor roles. Juno Temple, for example, better known for William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2011) and Maleficent (2014), appears for about five minutes as Deborah Hussey, a dimwitted but enthusiastic prostitute.
Perhaps the strongest supporting actor is Boston itself. The film’s use of Boston effectively recalls the urban tradition of gangster films, but without any pretension or hokeyness. There’s a melancholic stolidity to the city in Black Mass, and to the film embedded in the city.
Black Mass is an elegiac, carefully constructed film. It is remarkably unsensational, and, rare for a crime film, without any posturing or self-righteous elements.
It is violently, remorselessly taciturn in its depiction of the rise and fall of a psychopathic gangster.
Black Mass opens in Australia today.