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Of Rats and Men: “Black Mass” vs. “The Departed”

James “Whitey” Bulger spent about 15 years on the lam as #2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and yet “Black Mass,” the new Warner Bros. drama documenting his reign of terror over Irish Catholic South Boston, directed by Scott Cooper and headlined by Johnny Depp as Bulger, indicates he still eludes us. Guided by witnesses’ recorded testimonies, “Black Mass” is like an old chronological scrapbook from 1975 to the late 1980s reorganized for bureaucratic eyes.  Yet as Cooper emphasizes objectivity, Johnny Depp’s Bulger is an unnerving anomaly—a hybrid of Nosferatu, Pazuzu and Gollum DNA, a horror movie presence contaminating an Irish Catholic period canvas. That a character should be reading “The Exorcist” when Depp’s Bulgerferatu knocks on the door is less period correctness than an allusion to the character’s satanic prowess. In such a thin film, Bulger evades perspective. “Black Mass” cannot make sense of Bulger. Even when he's taken away in handcuffs, he still isn’t “there." It’s as if he needed to be a cosmeticized special effect because Cooper finds his evil unfathomable.

This is why the film against which “Black Mass” may be assessed, Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” (2006), is of interest. Written by Bostonian William Monahan (adapting Andy Lau and Alan Mak’s acclaimed Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs”), “The Departed” makes Bulger, who had long evaporated before the film went into production, into aging Irish-American crime lord Frank Costello. Jack Nicholson's borderline cartoonish gusto also makes Bulger an anomaly, a man who refuses to “lay low," wearing purple shirts and leopard print ties in a beige and grey aquarium of sports team merch. Whereas “Black Mass” can’t decide from which direction to approach James Bulger and the period recreation of Boston becomes little more than a one-dimensional backdrop, the scrim of fiction gives Scorsese and Monahan license to have Costello, satanically underlit in the prologue by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, usher us into Boston’s nightmarish panopticon as its explicator, pointing out for us that he doesn’t want to be a product of his environment. Rather, “I want my environment to be a product of me.

“The Departed” fulfilled Scorsese’s desire to make a pulpy B-noir gangster picture, using the plot—an undercover cop and overground criminal in a race to find each other out—as a kind of meta undercover device; the real “text” of the film being its subtext. From opening documentary footage of the ‘70s busing riots to Easter Egg winks to Howard Hawks’ “Scarface” to the appearance of John Ford’s parable of Irish Catholic guilt “The Informer” through name-dropping James Joyce and Nathaniel Hawthorne to a mid-film blue sky rooftop murder that, with its flabbergasted police radio babble, echoes the horror and confusion of 9/11, Scorsese’s apparent remake of pulp contrivances blossoms into an Information Age epic of the struggle to maintain an authentic link to historical contexts. The satanic temptation of Frank Costello is in his handing of coinage—“30 pieces of silver” if you will—to young Colin Sullivan (played by Matt Damon as an adult). Editor Thelma Schoonmaker inserts a subtle jump cut before the money hits the palm, indicating a break from history and identity. In Costello’s satanic creed of self-interest you have the freedom to leap beyond environmental impediments and choose your own destiny.

Young Sullivan’s metamorphosis into one of Costello’s opportunistic “ya gotta take it!” drones is cross-cut with his altar boy prayers, the orphan free falling from one surrogate household of shelter to another. Costello tells us Boston’s North Side is controlled by the Knights of Columbus, an organization that began as a charitable aid to Irish Catholics in the New World but is now a front for organized crime, regionally controlled by rival Italians. There are intimations of the clerical sex scandals, of which Boston, more than Rome, seems to be the octopus's eye. We learn that Costigan and Sullivan aren't the only ones who are undercover: several characters are informants or moles. One is Frank Costello who, like the real James Bulger, regularly feeds information to the FBI. Scorsese’s Catholic identity nurtures the conflicts of such terrain, his sense of “religion” akin to the word’s Latin derivation of “religio,” “to link back.” But in a city of rats politically centered around Beacon Hill, which acts as a golden prism reflecting the empty morality and transient identities of the citizenry, there’s no essence to which one can link back.

That “The Departed” should have a Chinatown chase that feels like it’s out of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” is a reminder that this is perhaps a film not about the past, anthropologically detailing Bulger’s universe and giving an authentic portrait of Boston but—taking cue from the haunting ending of Scorsese’s previous film, “The Aviator”—“the way of the future.” Technologically enabled bureaucratic objectivity is king. Even Bulger/Costello is overcome by his dexterous protégé and adopted “son” Sullivan: the leopard print ties and colorful shirts are replaced by the generic “Irish” identifying t-shirt marked by Sullivan’s bullets. Costello’s goes off in his dead hand, the ringtone a Donizetti sextet, a hollow mechanical melody heralding the death of the demonic Cult of Personality and the ascent of the condo dwelling, grey-suited cyborg sociopath.

Frank Costello is a criminal with a legacy of killing and screwing but no biological offspring. James Bulger’s destiny in “Black Mass” is similarly routed, the film beginning with the cold gears of recording equipment rolling, tape picking up the testimonial of his #2 enforcer Kevin Weeks (Jessie Plemons). The first thing Weeks wants to address, “for the record,” is that he’s “not a rat.” He’s a witness. The record is important, for both objects and subjects. It’s the first example in the film’s corrupt world of things being distinct from their titles.

Cooper swerves into a dramatization of Weeks’ first encounter with Bulger, who admires the young man’s obtuse and truculent—if naïve—standing as a doorman at one of the gangster’s bars. Bulger sees in Weeks a good soldier who can be molded. While having a muscled heavy as our guide would be an innovative directorial choice, the lens rotates, and keeps on rotating, between other testifying Bulger associates, including the murderous Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown). Their juicy anecdotes give the filmmakers ammunition for tidy and violent gangster moments while Depp’s enigmatic Bulger chews the scenery. First person reminiscences then play alongside third person scenes that follow Southie-born FBI Agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), who sees opportunity in nailing the Sicilian mafia by joining forces with his childhood hero Bulger, and introduces us to Bulger’s brother, the powerful politician William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who tells Connelly that, in contrast to the parade of two-faced individuals, “Jimmy’s Jimmy.”

Finally, instead of preserving the enigma, Cooper also follows James Bulger, playing cards with his cheating mom (Erica McDermott), being romantic with his live-in girlfriend (Dakota Johnson), and teaching street morality to their beloved son (if no one sees you do something wrong, it didn’t happen). The calm domestic life of Bulger volleys with his thuggish brutality, but the sentiments underlying such moments, such as Bulger’s grief over his son’s unexpected death from Reye syndrome, feel so calculated that they only keep us crawling on the freaky veneer of Depp’s makeup, with no sense of Bulger’s inner life. Promptly backing away from the family man portrait, the anecdotal steamroller of corruption and violence, sometimes compellingly, keeps moving.

It’s not necessary for a film to have a theme or a consistent perspective. After all, perspective is something Scorsese gracefully played with Henry and Karen Hill’s narration in “GoodFellas,” and then even more playfully—sometimes uproariously and finally audaciously—in the dueling voiceovers of Sam Rothstein and Nicky Santoro in “Casino.” But Scorsese’s commitment to subjectivity, even at its most contradictory, sows a sense of delirious irony in the soil of his true crime narratives, transcending the moral accounting of docudrama and embroiling us in the ecstasy of criminality. He’s pointing out our own perspective in relation to what’s happening; a mass criminal isn’t an extraterrestrial, unfathomable aberration.

This turns out to be the most visible difference between the respective miens of “Black Mass” and Scorsese’s gangster pictures: the filmmakers’ relationship to the characters. Even in the “The Departed”’s pulp, one gets the sense Scorsese once knew individuals like this. But for Cooper, the same sorts of people are cardboard cutouts surrounding Johnny Depp’s otherwordly beast. Even “The Departed”’s opening title of “Some Years Ago” subtly carries an urban conversational vernacular. Connelly, whose fall from “Hoover’s favorite son” to an incarcerated corrupt agent would be “Black Mass”’ most compelling arc, is a rote depiction of corruption, as is the sly smiling tacit menace of Cumberbatch’s Billy Bulger. In contrast to Cooper’s impersonal recording equipment, the Catholic “God’s Eye View,” which has always stalked Scorsese’s protagonists like a bird of prey, informs every infinitesimal nuance of Colin Sullivan’s corruption and despair. We watch a respectable and successful man slowly eaten away by his original sin, until even the dog passing him in the hallway turns away in disgust.

It’s fitting then as a story where titles don’t match their meanings (from “rat” to “informing” to “law enforcement agent”) that “Black Mass” should carry the pretense of tormented Catholic weight, at times garnishing itself with a funereal score, and be itself an arid cathedral sucked dry of any richness by Bulgerferatu front. The paradox of religious cultures in Massachusetts, from Puritan witch trials to Catholic criminals, isn’t here, nor any despair beyond a purely social one (as opposed to an existential or spiritual one) for Connelly. The film’s treatment of sex and gender, in relation to Catholicism, is a glaring shortcoming. Dakota Johnson's performance as a doting, stand-up girlfriend feels like little more than a strong young actress handed the token female face to play off the lead, making a brief appearance as one of the film's few voices of conscience. Juno Temple is wasted as Flemmi’s sexy prostitute stepdaughter (and girlfriend), who may have talked too much and has to be killed. Only Connelly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) has much personality and comes close to being central to a dramatic fulcrum point: Bulger hovers over her like Dracula, sizing up a delectable erotic meal before turning away. Soon after, she locks her husband out of their home and safely exits the picture.  

“The Departed,” on the other hand, is marked by the implicit Catholic guilt of sexual desire, and the ambivalent relationship between the culture’s men and conspicuously diminished women. “Ex-wives and girlfriends” are “what brings you down in this business,” says Costello, and handled as collateral damage, as we see Costello murdering a rival thug and his girlfriend on a beach. Sullivan is constantly struggling to embody heteronormative success, calling rival firefighters “a bunch of homos,” flirting with every girl in the office, flagrant dishonesty with his psychologist girlfriend Madelyn (Vera Farmiga), and eager to boost his image with a wedding ring (the presence of which, Alec Baldwin’s captain explains, results in propitious information processing on the part of other women).  Hovering over much of the sinfulness is the mysterious specter of mothers, recalling Joyce’s “Non Servium” and Stephen Dedalus’ tormented memory of his dead mother. Costigan mourns for his mother, who died of cancer soon before he accepted undercover duty. His emotional transference with Madelyn, his shrink, is the vulnerable sweetness of a boy for his mother; while Sullivan rejects photographs of Madelyn’s past on his condo wall, Costigan’s sanctification of preserving the past (a key theme for film preservation activist Scorsese) has him lovingly hanging up the same picture.

As Costello assumes the role of a governing Satan calling out pederast priests and reminding them that he runs the Bingo games, his girlfriend Gwen (Kristen Dalton) is a transfixing, sometimes disconcerting femme fatale imagined and drawn up by a fallen Catholic boy’s precocious erotic imagination. She flaunts her curves and struts behind a procession of Catholic School angels, while at home we gather she’s attempting to conceive, turning Costello’s machismo threats (“You watch your fucking mouth!”) into a giddy fellatio prompter. Mocking customs of sanctity, “The Departed”’s grey universe sifts men into binaries of cops and criminals, heavenly grace and secular apathy, and of course angels and whores, embodying the black mass that Cooper’s film promises but cannot deliver.

Speculating why it doesn’t deliver the mass, I’m tempted to defer to “The Departed”’s future tidings of identities stripped of blood and of links to the past. The Future, which is the central theme of Scorsese’s late period, bodes that identities are now cleanly ripped from the cultures that bore them. Using the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” isn’t a hackneyed move on Scorsese’s part, much as we’re tempted to think “The Departed” is simply the master playing his greatest hits along with his favorite songs. It implies a reply to the world of “GoodFellas,” where displays of succulent Sicilian meals remind us that the unsavory aspects of this specific criminal culture are every bit as integral to it as the food. The timeless paradox, as with Christian conflict of man and God, is essential and affirmed, while at the other end in the Witness Protection Program, Henry Hill is stuck with “egg noodles and ketchup.” The future noir of “The Departed” is informed by ethics thrown into the Patriot Act tumult of ubiquitous surveillance and digital manufacturing, where we’re surrounded by images but we can’t rest on the assurance of a single true one. It begins with “GoodFellas”’-familiar tribal categorizations, as we see the busing crisis, “Gimme Shelter,” and Costello marking off racial territory, but it ends with those cultures funneling into a tribe-of-one, identity tantamount to a social security number, and not a bloodline. That is what Scorsese sees as the true Satan of treacherous self-interest: the rejection of an essence, of an inner life, of a perspective.

The “paradox” of double consciousness is exorcised by the advent of the objective, no less than the warring gangs silenced by the Union Army at the climax of “Gangs of New York.” “Black Mass,” released nine years after “The Departed,” feels cleansed of racial, sexual, and religious anxiety, the violence and wrongdoing (miles removed from the Scorsesean notion of “Sinning”) sanitized as we excitedly observe it in its plastic-wrapped, three-ring binder, which we can soon after shelve and forget.

The mass here is no more invested with religious feeling than what is felt by the most perfunctory churchgoer mouthing the liturgical words on autopilot. As Depp’s Bulger is led away and we’re given the titles telling us of the law’s subsequent judgments, the malevolent vampire gangster might as well have not existed. We can go home and forget it like any Sunday sermon. But “The Departed,” even while it shows the corrupt victory of the Officially Objective, understands the tremulous despair suffocating to confess and air out beneath a citizenry’s stifling records, however distinguished.

When Colin Sullivan comes home to his swanky condo by Beacon Hill and finds a gun pointed at him, to die is almost a relief from the weight of memory. “Okay,” he mordantly acquiesces to death and his blood flies back, mostly staining the open door and hallway behind him, leaving the living room, the generic blankness of which he wouldn’t taint with personal photos, bloodless. The camera arcs from his corpse to the view of Beacon Hill, the gilded orb that held his gazed as he entered a capitalist labyrinth that concluded with his brain’s corporeal destruction: the total obliteration of perspective.

The title of “The Departed” could refer to the slew of corpses, or to an irretrievable past; taking cue from “The Informer”’s opening titles, it could refer to Matthew 27:5 and Judas Iscariot who “cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself”; and in the film’s postmodern information age twilight, it could refer to the end of what we think of as “human.”

But the devil remains. The rat we see scurrying outside in front of Beacon Hill could be Costello himself having one last mordant cackle, the image recalling a cartoon the gangster drew earlier. While “Black Mass” pays lip service during its liturgy and is headlined by Whitey Bulger as Dracula, “The Departed”’s fanciful appropriation of Bulger is even more in line with Bram Stoker’s imagining of Vlad the Impaler as a supernatural nobleman; Bulger’s soul transmigrating from Jack Nicholson’s leering smile to the scampering King Rat, reigning over the Panopticon; Costello undead as a cloud hovering over a wasted church where every mass is a black one.


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