There are moments in Black Mass where it seems like there’s getting ready to be a big payoff, or the film is finally going to hit on all cylinders, but when it finished I realize those moments never came. Bland, and ultimately pretty boring Black Mass tries its best to be your typical paint-by-numbers gangster movie, but lacks the energy or charisma of classic mobster flicks. It’s a film that could’ve greatly benefited from a light dressing of cliches as opposed to being drenched in them. It hits every mark on the mob movie cliche hit list including gratuitous language and violence throughout, The Rolling Stones on the soundtrack, and It wants to me a smooth talking, no frills biopic about a monster of a man. What we end up with is more of an insipid caricature of Whitey Bulger’s myth.
The movie is more about the alliance between Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) and The Winter Hill Gang with FBI man John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) than it is specifically a character study into Bulger himself. As the title indicates there are a lot of religious undertones and it tries to keep loyalty to one’s family as a running theme throughout. This is most evident when we see Benedict Cumberbatch effectively wasted as Whitey’s do good brother Senator Billy Bulger, one of the many ineffective and underdeveloped subplots. A lot of the flaws with Black Mass are more missteps in choices by director Scott Cooper and the way the film ended up being cut. Taking a leap of faith with tone and pacing backfires here, the first real mistakes I’ve observed in the short, but promising list of Cooper’s filmography. His previous two films I would describe as great (Crazy Heart) and very good (Out of the Furnace). So I anticipate much more quality films to come from Cooper, just hopefully not as dull as Black Mass. With risk of this sounding like an official take down, I would point out a few positive takeaways. The overall look of the film is top-notch and painting the picture of a dreary Southie neighborhood (particularly the exterior day shots) comes across with flying colors. The acting, although mostly way over-the-top, sees an immense ensemble as the film’s strong point.
There are a slew of impressive performances, especially the smaller supporting roles. The quality acting portrayals work more like an impressive workshop of spot-on South Boston-accents than pieces that work for the story though. Kevin Bacon and Peter Sarsgaard in particular. Sarsgaard’s short, but memorable turn as skittish hood Brian Halloran was one of the few pieces of the film I thoroughly enjoyed. It only lasts for a few minutes, but Sarsgaard channeling Turturro from Miller’s Crossing was a welcome delight. Unfortunately I found the myth of Whitey Bulger becoming less and less interesting as the film slugged on. And the real story of Whitey Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang is anything but humdrum. So there is the real crux of the matter; great source material that comes out flat due to the strategic direction of the storytelling . Part of that is the way Depp plays Bulger and how the movie is shot. Depp is almost unrecognizable as Bulger caked in prosthetics and makeup. I fully understand that Depp is playing the legend of Whitey Bulger more so than the man, but its really not that much fun to watch. Even though you can tell he really tries to lose himself in the character, I really think a little dash of energy from Captain Jack would’ve taken some of the scenes up a notch in the “much more interesting” department. Depp’s performance as Bulger is commendable in the sense of the craft, but I found it distracting throughout and the film as a whole suffers from it. You know what they say, “Never go full Whitey”. If you want to watch a good Johnny Depp gangster flick, just pop in Donnie Brasco.