Black Mass is a stage upon which Johnny Depp has revived his career, and little more. As the film’s malevolent heavy and famed criminal overlord “Whitey” Bulger, Deep is borderline excellent, brooding and prowling around the screen like a silverback gorilla. On the streets, he’s equally guerrilla, taking down his enemies as well as former-confidantes-turned-rat in maelstroms of cold-shelled slugs. And though Deeps is admirable as the callous and cold Jimmy Bulger, the film itself overwhelmingly replicates its star’s unenviable personality traits in its cinematic aura, resulting in a film that’s even more callous and cold than the iconic gangster at its center.
Where Martin Scorsese has proved a preternatural ability to tell a sprawling gangster epic without it feeling as if the ‘true to life’ elements were dragging him along, director Scott Cooper’s Black Mass feels like the anti-Scorsese film in that it feels tied to the “facts” in a decisively un-cinematic way. While not quite a cradle-to-grave biopic, Black Mass covers such a substantial time period (mostly 1975-1985) that no particular period ever gets the depth that we crave. Rather, the film speeds along its personal Highway 66 making pitstops at various headline-worthy incidents from Bulger’s life. Instead of exploring one cavern with great detail, he prods his light into a great many caves before quickly hurrying off to the next one.
The saga begins in 1975 when Bulger, the criminal king of Southie (South Boston), is still consider “small time.” A recent incident involving his beating a mafioso within an inch of his life to prove a point to new muscle Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) has him on the outs with the Italian Mob. A proposed hit now sits coolly on his hairy back. Seeing an opportunity in Bulger’s exposure, childhood “friend” and new FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) approaches the career criminal to propose an alliance.
Though Bulger’s stance on “rats” is crystalline (he hates them; he chops them up) he accepts the offer in order to grow his illegitimate empire while the FBI “fights his wars for him.” Under the protection of the FBI, Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang prosper, growing increasingly brash in their willingness to publicly violate the law right under the noses of the agents now protecting them.
Along the way, we get the occasional glimpse into Bulger’s home life – a scene in which Depp shines has him conveying to his son the virtues of being bad, so long as no one sees – but they remain so brief and so far between that they feel like hurried flybys rather than quintessential segments of the story. His relationship with wife Lindsey (Dakota Johnson) is another victim of Cooper’s sprint to the next big moment as a confrontation between the two ends in an “FU” – a statement made both to Bulger and the audience forced to go without a suiting resolution.
Cooper gives us a vague sense of Bulger’s operation – the assorted hits, book keeping, and the oh-so-important vending machine gig – but we’re never in the muck and mire with this guy so much as we are standing 20 feet away making our best guesswork as to how things run. We’re dropped into the midst of a conversation, about some deal with some businessmen or gangsters or federal agents, and are left to discern how the dots connect. As if we really even care.From go, Cooper enters the story with testimonies from Bulger’s former associates and it’s these various business connections that make up the bulk of the narrative to come. It’s a juvenile, almost tacky, approach to recounting Bulger’s activities and sets the table for the disappointment to come. They say narration is a crutch. After seeing Black Mass, I would argue testimony is an even more offensive crutch.
Still, Depp is in his element in Bulger’s shoes and even though he’s still buried beneath a mountain of makeup – from a comb-back to a dead tooth – the once-goofy entertainer has dissipated into a truly menacing dark cloud. And yet for all the high praise we’re more than willing to pile at Depp’s feet, somehow his role in the film still feels unsatisfying. One wouldn’t have to try particularly hard to make the argument that he is indeed a supporting character. Quick, someone run the numbers on Depp’s screen time and compare it to Edgerton’s. For Black Mass to succeed, Deep needs to be front and center. He needs to be. Any time spent away from him feels like a distraction and your eyes wander to your watch awaiting his return. The fact that we’re left craving more Deep speaks to both his great performance and the overall failure of the film.
This is in large part due to the fact that Black Mass is frustratingly short on one crucial detail that’s essential to any movie: context. Cooper drops us into scenes with characters we don’t know, two to five years after the last event we’ve seen, and expects us to play catch up with no leg up. The screenplay from Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, which was in turn adapted from Dick Lehr and Gerard K. O’Neill’s novel of the same name, often gives us so little to go on that it’s hard to figure what kind of emotional results they expect when the big hits go down. Surely, we’re intended to feel something when the nefarious Whitey guns down those “close” to him and yet when we only get roughly one scene with them before they’re axed, it basically just equates to a half-hearted shrug. In short, although they do not, we always see it coming.
And though the film is positively brimming with actors whose names you know or whose faces you’ll recognize at the very least – Adam Scott, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Corey Stoll – few get the depth they deserve. Plemon’s as Kevin Weeks is a prime example as the film opens on his battered face, sets him up to be an important secondary character (perhaps even Black Mass’ own version of Henry Hill) and then seemingly forgets that he exists an hour into the movie.
The many pros of Cooper’s film are decisively battled backed by its horde of cons. Cooper plays to Newton’s Third Law of Filmmaking: for every victory Black Mass achieves, there is equal and opposite blow back. I could point to a multitude of scenes that I found massively compelling – perhaps the film’s best involves Depp really chewing into a tense dinner scene over a secret family recipe – but every high is followed by a crippling low. Each explosive episode in Bulger’s life is chased by a shot of stunningly boring cinema. The term “rollercoaster” is meant to apply to films that make you feel a range of emotions but could be lent to Black Mass simply for its ability to transfix and then tire from scene to scene.
That’s not to say that it’s all bad. In fact, Black Mass has some truly superb scenework. The aforementioned steak marinate sequence, Depp’s spine-tingling showdown with Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple’s brief but potent moment in the spotlight. Each however is sandwiched with moments that claim expositional value but more often than not just feel perfunctory. And this is the problem with Black Mass: it just feels so, well, there.
CONCLUSION: Featuring what is unarguably Johnny Depp’s best performance in years, Black Mass suffers under the weight of its own ambition. Too sprawling and rushed to ever settle into the moment, it’s a disappointment punctuated by crackpot moments of clarity.