More of a reclamation project for star Johnny Depp than the fascinating account of an actual gangster, Black Mass is a missed opportunity to do anything more trudge through the same old gangster story.
For 12 years, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was behind only Osama bin Laden on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Whitey’s brother, Billy, had a nearly 20 year tenure as the state senator of Massachusetts yet the brothers remained close throughout their lives. And during Whitey’s formative criminal career, he was a central figure in a bitter mob war.
I mention that to say Bulger’s life lends itself to a number of fascinating options for films. The direction chosen for Black Mass is the least interesting or at least executed in a way that had me wishing the filmmakers went another route.
As the film opens, Whitey’s crew has been arrested and his three main lieutenants are being interrogated leading to an extended flashback of how Whitey (Depp) used the FBI to expand his criminal empire.
The narrative is a bit too familiar for anyone who’s ever watched a Martin Scorsese gangster film. Trying to match up against Goodfellas, Casino or The Departed isn’t the smartest move if you can’t at least match those all-time classics and Black Mass comes up way short.
FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, The Great Gatsby), a childhood friend of Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game), wants to take down the Italian mob. Connolly thinks Whitey can help him and proposes an alliance to take down the mob, but he never seems to consider the cost of working so closely with a known felon.
Edgerton, who at this point really needs to stop being underrated, and be recognized as a very talented, versatile actor, carves out another strong performance as the boisterous and showy agent.
Depp, who’s struggled through a well-documented run of bombs, doesn’t have the career renaissance that’s dominated much of the buzz for Black Mass — the only feel-good aspect of the project. While his choice in projects may have been suspect, Depp didn’t just stop being a good actor.
In channeling Bulger, Depp has a character that forces him to be less zany showman and more a calculated, remorseless psychopath. By staying more methodical in the role, Depp goes against his recent norm and just becomes a character instead of being a caricature. There’s still an onslaught of Oscar contenders to go, but Depp definitely put himself in the conversation with this chilling performance.
Whitey isn’t the charismatic whirlwind of a Tony Montana from Scarface and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (Get on Up) fail to adequately explain what makes him so special that he’s able to lure people specifically in this case Connolly in to his web.
More confusing is why Connolly’s FBI peers McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott) are so uninterested in investigating how much help Whitey has actually been for the agency.
Atypical for most gangster films, we never see the fruits of Whitey’s criminal lifestyle. There’s no lavish scenes of excess whether it be clothes, jewelry, cars, drugs or women to justify why exactly Whitey needs to expand his crime base at all. You’d think the guy would at least fix his teeth.
Somewhat frustratingly, the film’s females characters serve little purpose. Dakota Johnson, who plays Whitey’s girlfriend, has a couple of quality scenes with Depp early on, but disappears. Ditto for Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County), who plays Connolly’s wife who gets a front row seat to her husband spiraling over the edge.
Similar to his work in Out of the Furnace, Director Scott Cooper wears the viewer down with a relentless, tense-filled tone and the occasional gruesome display of unflinching cruelty.
There’s little humor to diffuse some of the drama in order for Cooper to keep the audience on edge for the film’s duration, but that’s a daunting task in a two-hour film and it leaves you more drained than entertained.
Depp comes up smelling like roses, but as an informative or even worthwhile glimpse at a fascinating period, Black Mass feels like the worst kind of history lesson where we never learn why we’re supposed to care about any of it.
Rating: 5 out of 10
Photo credit: Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
For a better gangster at the end of his run, check out the far more compelling Donnie Brasco. Donnie Brasco (Extended Cut) [Blu-ray]