There is no denying that as film/television rose to its place in the homes and minds of pretty much everyone, one particular trope rose pretty steadily within it: the sympathetic villain. From Dexter Morgan to Walter White to Sweeney Todd, popular characters have pulled audiences in with charm and complexity, even as they commit horrific deeds. Some out there have begun to finger these glorified roles as the culprits of so much corruption in society; we like the bad guys a little too much, perhaps.
Scott Cooper’s Black Mass offers a refreshing antidote to the potential of that disturbing thesis. In Johnny Depp’s gorgeously terrifying return to Oscar Season, this time as infamous gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Cooper presents to us a dangerous and entirely unloveable villain, a layered yet demonstrably sinister human being.
Whether this biopic, a story for whom many who were well-taken care of by Bulger may prove offensive, is true to the man’s character remains moot here. People will see the film. People will enjoy Depp’s powerhouse presence, his command of each scene. People will label him “bad-ass”. But people will also, if Cooper’s interpretation hits its mark, ultimately find him a terror, the sort of man you’d avoid, not invite in to talk about what makes him great.
To me, the point of such a film, meticulously tracking the labyrinthine rise and fall of men with too much power and not enough conscience, is in the witnessing. Black Mass may be action-packed, but it is by no means a thrill ride. Cooper’s adaptation of the literary historic account simply states: this was a remarkable moment in US history, a story that is worth telling if only to understand where justice takes its place for those characters we sometimes hold dangerously close. This film is not to be missed, nor is it to be simplified. Go bear witness.