WRITTEN REVIEW – Black Mass (2015)
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Written by: Jez Butterworth & Mark Mallouk
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane & Kevin Bacon
Music: Junkie XL
Release Date: November 25th 2015
Those not in the know when it comes to the ins-and-outs of the movie industry will know ‘Black Mass‘ as “that film where Johnny Depp isn’t goofing around”. Obviously many film studios rely on big name stars in order to sell many of their smaller prestige pictures but ‘Black Mass‘ has been selling itself more as a redemption movie for Johnny Depp. While the actor met great critical and audience acclaim with roles in ‘Edward Scissorhands‘, ‘Ed Wood‘ and ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas‘, he hit mainstream success playing Captain Jack Sparrow in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl‘ (in an Oscar nominated performance).
The rest of his career has consisted of him and studios trying to recapture that Sparrow success in movies such as ‘Alice in Wonderland‘, ‘Dark Shadows‘, ‘The Lone Ranger‘ and ‘Mortdecai‘ but those performances have generally been met with derision. ‘Black Mass‘, telling the true story of infamous Boston crime-lord James “Whitey” Bulger based off the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob“, may have an acclaimed cast comprised of stars like Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Joel Edgerton but the marketing is primarily a Depp-narrative. Is ‘Black Mass‘ nothing more than a Depp redemption or is there more to this crime story underneath all the wigs and make-up?
In 1975, James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) controlled most of the organised crime within the South Boston area. However, him and his criminal partners start meeting resistance from North Boston gangsters when an opportunity for control presents itself; James’ childhood friend, now FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton) will look the other way to his criminal activities as long as James provides information concerning his mob/mafia rivals. This is also helped by James’ brother William “Billy” Bulger (Cumberbatch) being a State Senator. However, due to Connolly and the FBI allowing James to expand his criminal empire, he eventually starts taking over all of Boston and breaking every law in the book, eventually leading to him becoming one of the most wanted fugitives in American history.
‘Black Mass‘ centres around the criminal activities of James “Whitey” Bulger and FBI Agent John Connolly between 1975, when James first became an informant, to 1994 when he became a fugitive, with a brief epilogue at the end detailing recent events that brought this story back into the forefront (and prompting enough interest in this story to base a movie around). Despite the promotional material almost entirely relying on Johnny Depp’s transformative performance, ‘Black Mass‘ actually has a two-pronged narrative. Or maybe it’s three-pronged because the framing device of the movie has an unnamed FBI Agent interviewing many of the associates Bulger has amassed over his 20 year career. Though, truth be told, this framing device adds very little to the movie and probably could have been cut altogether.
The first half of ‘Black Mass‘ is incredibly strong as it makes the complex web of intrigue, under-the-table dealings between Bulger and the FBI accessible and understandable, especially when you take into account just how reprehensible the whole situation was. The idea of criminal informants is nothing new but the fact that the FBI refused to reign Bulger in when he was breaking their agreed terms and committing murders and savage beatings in broad daylight is where ‘Black Mass‘ takes a turn from a dark crime story into “you couldn’t write this” territory. The first half of the movie also provides the strongest characterisation as the chess pieces are put into place, not only with Bulger and his crime family slowly taking over Boston with the help of the FBI but also the motivation of the characters.
In particular, the characterisation of James “Whitey” Bulger who, in his very first scene, is depicted as someone who clearly has a few screws loose and being given the freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted by the FBI was a serious error of judgement due to his unchecked psychotic nature. The movie also does a good job at almost making him sympathetic and endearing in the first half by depicting his gut-wrenching reaction to a personal family-loss and giving the character some sort of standards and loyalty to his friends and family. Obviously there’s only so much you can do to endear an audience to an unhinged crime lord with a god complex but ‘Black Mass‘ does service to the character in a narrative sense.
And for the first time for a long time in a mainstream movie it feels like Johnny Depp is actually making a character as opposed to a caricature (‘The Lone Ranger‘ & ‘Mortdecai‘) a blank-slate (‘Transcendence’) or a goofy hat with make-up attached (‘Alice in Wonderland‘, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘ & ‘Dark Shadows‘). While the make-up job is occasionally noticeable (there are a few scenes where Johnny Depp is not wearing his grey contact lenses and where you can see where his bald-cap begins) it’s a transformative role and proves that while Depp might have pissed away a lot of audience/critical goodwill over the past few years, he’s still a darn fine performer. It’s an unpredictable turn where a lot of the tension in a scene can come from wondering whether or not Bulger is going to smash someone’s face in at any moment. It’s a multi-layered depiction where Bulger can be delivering a brutal warning to a rival gangster one minute and then playing a card game with his loving mother the next. It’s certainly the best Depp has been in a movie for a decade and let’s hope he can ride this wave of goodwill.
Oh…’Alice Through The Looking Glass‘ and ‘Yoga Hosers‘ come out in 2016 and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales‘ comes out in 2017. Well, that hope was nice while it lasted.
Another stand-out is Joel Edgerton who is being touted by many critics as almost stealing the show from Depp. I…can’t go that far. He’s a strong presence and John Connolly is an interesting character due to his brutish nature seemingly clashing with his prestigious FBI position of power, but the character becomes very flat in the second half and Joel Edgerton’s performance doesn’t quite evolve to compensate (more on the second half later). We also have Benedict Cumberbatch as James’ brother, but he seems very miscast in the role. Not only does he look nothing like his brother (though that may be the point) he puts on a very strange Boston accent and heightens the pitch of his voice creating a strange disconnect for the audience if you’ve seen him in any other film. The rest of the ensemble cast, while given very limiting screentime, do a good job with what they’re given though I feel that the very talented Corey Stoll and Dakota Johnson aren’t given nearly enough to do.
While the first half is strongly written and put together, where ‘Black Mass‘ falls flat is everything that takes place after the hour mark when the main characters reach the point of no return. The money is coming in thick and fast for Bulger and his organisation but we don’t see where any of it goes and we’re only told in dialogue the nuts and bolts of their operations. And once the body count starts to wrack up and Connolly starts to realise that the deal is going south (but he’s unable to back out of it because he’d basically be admitting he gave a crime lord carte blanche) the story just stops and doesn’t change until the epilogue.
The second half of ‘Black Mass‘ is basically comprised of a scene where Bulger and/or one of his associates kills someone, the FBI reacts, Connolly tries to pretend it never happened, then repeat for 50-55 minutes. It gets ridiculously repetitive and even the moments of characterisation that should break up this formula feel hackneyed, such as the death of a member of the Bulger family that falls flat because we’ve not seen or heard from the character for at least an hour before it happens and then the movie just carries on like it was no big deal. The narration tells the audience that these family events made Bulger more unhinged and less empathetic but the actions that should make that apparent never really take place on screen. Sure, he does some brutal kills late in the movie but one of the first scenes has him do that anyway. Nothing’s really changed here.
The end result is that while the movie in its second half is all dressed up and given a lot of characters and themes to explore, it has nowhere to go. ‘Black Mass‘ for its last 50-55 minutes just meanders around in place and feels oddly direction-less. It becomes a repetitive crime movie with very little subtext or meaning as the repetitive formula described in the above paragraph plays out over and over again. Many dialogue sequences also go on for way too long including, but not limited to, an exchange between Bulger and his associates step-daughter and Connolly talking to a “bulldog” prosecutor. The main “hook” of ‘Black Mass‘ is that both sides of the law can be as bad as each other but as the movie rattles on for over two hours it seems like that’s all it’s got, aside from a strong central performance from Depp.
But like I mentioned earlier, while the make-up job on Depp is very strong there are frequent cracks in the armour with missing coloured contact lenses (see the picture below where Depp’s natural, blue eyes are on display) and visible hairlines. But the rest of the production is generally strong, even though it doesn’t quite look like a $53M movie (which is the reported production budget). The violence is frequent and strong, the 1970s and 1980s period detail is solid as are the set dressings as well as effective lighting and cinematography. The movie was primarily filmed on location in Boston and that’s the most effective thing about the production as it manages to give the seedy underbelly of the city a personality, its own culture and a twisted sense of community. Despite Junkie XL’s providing many stand-out scores in recent memory (such as ‘Mad Max: Fury Road‘) not much really stood out here.
‘Black Mass‘ gets off to a very solid start by setting up a handful of compelling characters, most of whom are very well performed, and lay the groundwork for a memorable crime biopic. But once the second half rolls around ‘Black Mass‘ reveals itself to be a repetitive, surface-level crime drama whose main stand-out element is Johnny Depp’s memorable and transformative portrayal of James “Whitey” Bulger. The second half is in desperate need of a re-edit as well as a screenplay that is willing to give the supporting players more impact within their own story and having the thought to follow through with the “so ridiculous it must be true” premise of the FBI’s collaboration with one of American’s most notorious criminals. It’s a missed opportunity, but it’s a solid production that is worth seeing, if only once and maybe only the first 60 minutes.
I give ‘Black Mass‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 30th Nov 15