When trailers started dropping for Black Mass two years ago, my hopes were as high as everyone else’s. From the looks of it, the movie was going to deliver on multiple fronts: it would be a gritty, epic crime drama to fill the void left by Martin Scorsese’s departure from the genre, and it would mark Johnny Depp’s return to serious roles after his dual love affair with Jack Sparrow and Tim Burton turned him into a walking pile of cosmetics and funny hats. Like a lot of other viewers, my reaction to the film walking out of the theater on opening night was lukewarm. It was a better than average gangster movie, but it failed to reach the heights of grandeur it promised. Depp was amazing, but the film didn’t give him enough to make the role truly iconic. The script was for the most part well written, but it didn’t explore Whitey Bulger deeply enough for a biopic. The pacing throughout was good, but it ended too abruptly. It was just a good movie—neither great nor terrible, something destined to become a cable standby, the sort of thing always playing on TV in motel rooms or Saturday nights when there’s nothing else to watch.
Something about the movie stuck with me, though. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Despite all my criticisms and initial disappointment, I just kept thinking about it. I ended up buying it when it came out on DVD. I showed it to my brother and recommended it to my parents. What was it that intrigued me so, when on paper it failed to deliver on so many promises?
Re-watching it again recently—in a motel room—something hit me. While Black Mass is an OK gangster film, it’s a really intriguing horror movie.
First things first—I don’t think for a second that director Scott Cooper set out to make Black Mass a horror film, give it underpinnings of horror, or even reference the horror genre. His background is in gritty, working-class dramas, and I think that’s exactly what he set out to make. Several of his choices, though—from, “it looked good on paper” to the inexplicable—work to make Black Mass one of the more quietly effective vampire films in recent years.
Many classic vampire myths rely on the idea of seduction—of the vampire either sexually or psychologically enthralling a victim, first mentally transforming the person before the physical metamorphosis that comes with a bite. Similarly, Black Mass becomes a story about the seduction of John Connolly, and how his association with Whitey Bulger pulls him deeper into the criminal underworld. At the outset of the film, he almost literally makes a devil’s deal, allying with a man known to have committed heinous crimes for the sake of catching other, ostensibly more dangerous criminals. As the film goes on, the effects of Connolly’s decision become physically apparent, as he literally begins to change in appearance to look more like Whitey. Connolly starts wearing more jewelry, louder clothes, and at some point acquires an insanely expensive wristwatch far above the pay grade of a civil servant (from the looks of it, it appears to be a yellow-gold Rolex Day Date). The last time we see him, Connolly has even taken to wearing a pair of gradient-tinted sunglasses like those we see Bulger in throughout the film (more on that below). Just as his association has him behaving more like Bulger, so too does it physically transform him to resemble the man.
Similarly, the movie plays with the idea of a sexual subtext in the relationship between the two. In many classic vampire myths, the relationship between the vampire and victim is implied to be sexual, usually with some forbidden element, often homoerotic in nature. Connolly makes veiled references to a special relationship between him and Bulger, and while in real life this refers to an adolescent Bulger protecting Connolly from bullies as a child, Connolly’s (and the movie’s) refusal to elaborate imply that relationship to be something clandestine and potentially dark. Throughout the film, characters question Connolly’s loyalty to Bulger, and while there are plenty of obvious answers—their shared heritage, their childhood together, Bulger’s ostensible value as an informant—Connolly becomes defensive and reticent whenever he’s pushed, enhancing the idea that Connolly harbors some sort of sexual fascination. For his part, Bulger demonstrates a degree of sexual predation when he visits Connolly’s wife, insisting that he verify her story of a fever by groping her face in a manner that’s equal parts molestation and checking a piece of meat for flaws before consuming it. (A subtle yet odd note—in the latter parts of the film, after he and his girlfriend have split, Bulger wears a gold Claddagh ring. The hand on which the ring is worn, and the position it is worn in, indicate something about the wearer. An upside down Claddagh on the right ring finger indicates the wearer is single and looking; right-side-up indicates the wearer is dating someone. Upside down on the left ring finger indicates the wearer is engaged, while right-side-up is a sign of marriage. Whitey wears his on his left pinky finger, right-side-up, indicating an abnormal wedded relationship).
While these could simply be elements of a “good guy turned bad” narrative, the depiction of Bulger’s character adds more horror subtext to the film. Whitey Bulger is, inarguably, an evil human being, a thesis underscored by the movie’s summation of him as “purely criminal” in its final moments. He was not, however, the pallid ghoul that Depp is made up to be. Photos of Bulger from the era the film depicts show an average, balding, middle-aged man with a bad tooth. He wouldn’t stand out in a crowd—that’s kinda how he evaded capture for sixteen years. You don’t live in plain sight in major cities by looking conspicuous. The Whitey Bulger of Black Mass, though, wouldn’t just stand out in a crowd, he’d probably have the crowd parting to avoid touching him. Depp’s skin is just a few shades darker than “dead.” Bulger’s pale blue eyes have become translucent and his discolored tooth looks rotted. He looks, effectively, like a living corpse, emphasized by the decision to keep Depp in blacks for most of the film, from a number of black jackets to a black chambray western shirt worn during one of the film’s pivotal scenes.
The vampiric effect is amplified by what becomes a ubiquitous pair of sunglasses (the Carrera 5623, if anyone’s interested). Not only do they keep in line with the idea of the vampire being weakened by daylight, but the sunglasses’ tint (a Brown #2 gradient—again, in case you’re interested) shows up as shades of red on camera, probably a result of residual red dyes used to create the brown. The result is an altogether more demonic look—one that, perhaps coincidentally, tends to show up during the film’s murder sequences, almost as though when Bulger is killing someone, he’s showing his true form. Further tying the sunglasses to demonic and transformative themes are their sole appearance in a nighttime scene, when Bulger takes Connolly to a club to implicate him in a murder. As described by an informant, the purpose of Bulger bringing Connolly along was “making the alliance, the bond, between Jimmy and Connolly stronger.” The use of the word “bond” here implies a more intense relationship than simple informant/cop, while also indicating the murder as a transformative event. By Bulger’s will, he and Connolly now share a bond of blood, and it’s during this bonding process that Bulger dons his sunglasses, showing himself in his full demonic glory. Noteworthy is that Depp’s costume in this sequence is an incredibly faithful recreation of the outfit worn by Bulger in a widely disseminated photo—except that, in real life, Bulger isn’t wearing the sunglasses. (A last note, here, on the idea of Bulger not liking daylight: the film often depicts him sleeping during the day and fully active at night, and during several daytime sequences he grows lethargic and dismisses himself from the room by explaining that he needs to take a nap).
This supernatural quality is also demonstrated during some of the film’s murder sequences. As opposed to most Mafia films, in which gangsters commit their killings through the element of surprise or isolate their victims before killing them, several of the deaths in Black Mass happen in public in broad daylight; and while they are, for the most part, accurate depictions of Bulger’s recklessness, the way they’re filmed recalls attacks by a horror movie slasher. One sequence, in particular, finds Bulger walking slowly across a parking lot, firing a gun at a helpless victim, looking for all the world like Michael Meyers closing in on a babysitter. He even wields the gun more like an edged weapon than a firearm, allowing it to dangle from his side with one hand rather than hold it at abdomen-level with both hands the way an experienced gunman would.
Again, I don’t think that Cooper intended for this to be a horror film, or even have horror trappings, no matter how much his aesthetic and storytelling choices may dovetail with that interpretation (coincidentally, the title—taken from a book of the same name—lends itself nicely to a vampire tale, recalling the creature’s penchant for holing up in deconsecrated churches and engaging in Satanic rituals). There’s quite a bit onscreen, though, that lends itself to that interpretation, adding another layer to a film that’s ripe for re-watching.