Black Mass, Sicario, and Hollywood Morality

Johnny Depp as “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass
Two new movies raise a conservative dilemma.

Is there such a thing as a conservative movie? This week two films, Black Mass and Sicario, inspire that question. It’s easy to spot a liberal film by its checklist of special-interest characters and familiar hero/villain strategies, always devised to promote fashionable social trends. A conservative film might be one that, instead, promotes traditional ideas and classical values. But in either case, the effect a movie has on our political and moral awareness matters most.

Despite a law-and-order pretext in Black Mass, the new version of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger’s legend, its ghoulish emphasis on social atrocity and heinous behavior suggests trendy, nihilistic tenets. Sicario deals with U.S. government agents fighting Mexican drug cartels, with concentration on harrowing, disconcerting combat efforts that seem to justify absolute law enforcement.

Both movies pull audiences into ambiguities. A thoughtful viewer, looking for entertainment or something more, has to ask: Do these films explore the characters’ beliefs and dramatize plausible circumstances, or do they simply exploit the appetite for danger? That’s the conservative dilemma.

Liberals have it easy at the movies and will jeer at any expression of conservative values. Conservatives often fall desperately for Hollywood’s pettiest acknowledgment of moral caution. Film history has shown that it’s possible to get caught up in a movie that tests one’s politics, and it isn’t always easy to divorce one’s principles from a film’s gestalt.

But making such distinctions is crucial. Since we know straight off that we’re dealing with an industry and cultural institution that tends toward liberal bias, it can be fascinating to navigate the kinetic effects and emotional impact of movies while trying to hold on to one’s ethical standards. We must make sense of what filmmakers are doing — without falling into the trap of being consumerist imbeciles.

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Depp in “Black Mass”

Johnny Depp brings his personal politics — which is to say his personal morality — to the Bulger tale by giving the role a Nosferatu veneer. Depp’s made-up look (wide forehead, receding hairline, piercing eyes, and rotting teeth) gives a vermin-like aspect to a criminal who preyed on Boston’s Irish Southie community. (Bulger is described as “a ripened psychopath determined to succeed above all else.”) Yet by making the character resemble Gary Oldman’s Dracula impersonation, Depp apparently intends gangster and murderer Bulger to assert a freaky fascination.

This moral/political confusion — mixing the horror genre with the gangster genre — ties in with the film’s failed concept. Bulger is protected by FBI agent Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a fellow Southie tempted by evil, who neglects his professional oath for a perverted social code.

The morally ambiguous gangster film is a cliché that never dies.

Despite the horror-film aura (Connolly’s frightened wife is molested by Bulger as she reads The Exorcist), Black Mass never creates a spiritual vision as in Francesco Munzi’s devastating Italian Mafia film Black Souls (Anime Nere). Black Mass offers the familiar temptations (and the same sham “realism”) as Goodfellas and Casino, because director Scott Cooper, like almost every other unoriginal filmmaker, wants to do a Scorsese — a street-based gangster movie with special-guest victims dispatched in gruesome ways by macho creeps. (Repetition of the word “f—” has never been so ineffective as here.) But Scorsese ruined the socially complex Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs when he adapted its crime story to Boston for The Departed, and Cooper returns the favor with this rehash of The Departed. The morally ambiguous gangster film is a cliché that never dies.

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Emily Blunt in “Sicario”

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s personal moral fascination is what makes his movies’ political topics so greatly compelling. He brings moral seriousness, not topical attitudes, to Sicario’s war on drugs. The title, an arcane hitman-assassin reference, purposely alludes to a group of Jewish Zealots in the a.d. 70 Jewish–Roman war in the Holy Land, in order to broaden — and complicate — an issue that otherwise would be subject to political controversy.

As in his powerful 2010 film Incendies (about the effect of the war in Lebanon on later generations in North America), Villeneuve closely examines the motivations of his three main characters: local DEA agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), federal agent Matt (Josh Brolin), and covert agent Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Looking beyond their legal jurisdiction, Villeneuve depicts them as players in a grave human tragedy.

Villeneuve sees — almost smells — the bloodiness of their efforts. No filmmaker since Sam Peckinpah has handled violence so effectively. “Be alert. Be vigilant. Be aware,” an FBI commander tells his troops. And that’s how Villeneuve directs. His Southwestern landscapes are presented existentially: plane shadows over flesh-like terrain; the Big Earth seen from above, catching microscopic human movements. One extraordinary vista features a sign (Las Biblias es verdad) on a mountainside. It gives an almost numinous perspective on the characters’ vexing, mundane maneuvers. And on the ground, in tunnels, or in hide-outs, the action involves all one’s senses. Sicario is technically superb, with vibrant sound effects and imagery ranging from sun-bright clarity to spectral night-vision by cinematographer Roger Deakins.

#related#Sicario always returns to human scale — to Kate, Matt, and spooky Alejandro’s political conflicts, which are also moral conflicts, as the film shows how their noblest intentions get thwarted by unforeseen realities. (Brolin’s jug-jawed certainty works on an immediate level, Del Toro’s quiet passion is deeply stirring, but British actress Blunt, alas, isn’t convincing at conveying American temperament.) Sicario recalls the profundity of John Ford’s most sagacious western, Two Rode Together (1961), where moral ambiguities met political exigencies — a complex vision lost in our current, self-absolving, bifurcated culture.

Most of our movies today trade complexity for partisanship and sensationalism, whether for liberal or conservative ends. But Villeneuve brings back hard thinking and emotional response — a conservative value, and a nearly lost art.

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