Black Mass follows the true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf. (IMDb – Black Mass)
Black Mass has been touted as a potential comeback vehicle for Johnny Depp, if only because it strays so far from his most recent roles. If you’re expecting Black Mass to signify the return of Johnny Depp, “serious actor” you may be left a little bit disappointed. As a long time and long suffering Johnny Depp fan (I actually paid money to see THE TOURIST!!!!!), I expected a lot from Black Mass, and specifically from Depp’s portrayal of notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger.
Johnny Depp gives a fine performance, straying from his now familiar, and let’s face it, overdone Jack Sparrow swagger for a heavier and more serious role. Depp physically disappears into the role, donning prosthetics, makeup (including some really distracting and awful color contacts) and a raspy drawl to embody a cold and calculating killer. If only Depp was afforded an opportunity to play this role with a better script and story.
The biggest issue with Black Mass lies in its lack of narrative focus. The film doesn’t have much to say – it ends up being a checklist of events in Bulger’s life, with an ever increasing list of characters amounting to a hurried and almost anti-climactic story. We run through so many facets of Bulger’s life – his relationship with his mother, the loss of his son, the rise of his criminal empire, working with the FBI, his senator brother, his involvement with the IRA – but don’t delve into any deeper issues or any explanations. We have small (and some brilliant) moments where we experience Bulger’s calculating nature and short temper – but there’s little connection between those singular instances and his flourishing criminal empire. There’s no convincing argument to sway the audience to either fear or sympathize with Bulger. Frustratingly, Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay never really manages to explain why Bulger is who he is.
There’s some great work from the supporting cast, specifically from Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s Senator brother Billy Bulger, and Joel Edgerton as John Connelly, an FBI agent and long-time Bulger family friend, who’s prepared to milk that connection for his own professional advancement. Edgerton shares some terrific scenes with a couple of suspicious FBI superiors, played by Kevin Bacon and Corey Stoll, who both come to doubt the value of the Bulger deal. Better still is a startlingly uneasy confrontation between Bulger and Connelly’s wife Marianne (a small role with a great performance from Julianne Nicholson).
Director Scott Cooper borrows some stylistic elements from Scorsese’s Boston crime epic The Departed, so much so, that it seems like a wannabe gangster flick.
There are a lot of missed opportunities in Black Mass, which, if further explored, would have really elevated this film from an average and uneven gangster film to a crime classic. For now, I’ll keep hoping and waiting on Depp’s comeback.