With adapted screenplays, writers are faced with a unique challenge: in order to pare down a book into an effective script, screenwriters are often forced to discard pages–and often important ones that add to the nuance of the plot.
For screenwriters, the problem isn’t simply run time, but more broadly, the conflicting demands of budgets, story structure and, most importantly, coherence. In “Black Mass,” Scott Cooper’s new film about Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger’s collusion with the FBI, there arises a glaring problem with coherence in a plot that lacks the thrill of its original story.
Cooper, whose debut film “Crazy Heart” was accomplished enough to earn Jeff Bridges an Oscar, does not shoulder much of the guilt. Instead, screenwriters Mark Mallouk (“Rush,” producer) and Jeff Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow”) are to blame. They adapted Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s best-selling book “Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal,” but were not able create a compelling story from it. Their script relates the chronology of Bulger’s ascent and downfall, but none of the drama is present.
Last year Angelina Jolie had the same problem with the script for her movie “Unbroken.” There is an amazing survival story behind the source material, the book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand based on Louis Zamperini’s struggle during World War II. But a good story does not always make for a compelling film.
It is no wonder that Black Mass has not been made until now. Even Harvey Weinstein, who bought the book’s rights before it was released, was not able to pull it off. How do you fit such an extensive investigation in a two-hour film? You simply cannot. Something will get lost in the process. Here, it is the development of the main character.
The consequences of Whitey Bulger’s crucial personal losses are verbalized, not told. Bulger’s colleagues explain how he is going to behave after his son or his mother dies. They do this in interviews done more than two decades on.
There is no sense of misery, sadness or revenge in Bulger’s story except for the killings. Even the murders ascribe to a violent randomness to which the movie never really commits. Bulger is not presented as a fully developed character. He is just a bad guy who knows how to take advantage of others because he is intimidating.
However, these are not Black Mass’ only problems. Cooper does nothing outstanding with the material. His movie is impersonal. There is no sufficient tension or drama in the film and it is difficult to respond to the violence when there is no sense of how the characters feel. We only get a glimpse of Cooper’s true abilities when Bulger faces one of the FBI detectives over a “family recipe.” It is a shame that we do not get more of that for the rest of the film.
Despite the fact that we do not get a good story out of it, Black Mass is interesting enough because the source material is fascinating. The film could have taken many approaches with it, and it tries to touch on many of them throughout its 120-minutes. Instead it just flies above them. We can look at some of the problematic consequences of the witness protection program that J. Edgar Hoover installed. We can see two FBI agents as they are corrupted. We can see how a local criminal conquered the city of Boston for more than a decade. What we don’t see is how they felt or why they did those things, but at least the story is entertaining enough to keep us watching.