DIR: Scott Cooper • WRI: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth • PRO: John Lesher, Scott Cooper, Patrick McCormick, Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson • DOP: Masanobu Takayanagi • ED: David Rosenbloom • MUS: Junkie XL • CAST: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane
Black Mass tells the story of real-life Irish-American gangster and FBI informant James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. This has been one of the most anticipated films of the year and while it has its good moments it also turns out to be one of the year’s biggest let downs.
The film’s heavily inspired by Martin Scorsese. From the way it’s shot, to the material covered you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching one of his films. But unfortunately it doesn’t come close to touching Goodfellas or Casino.
Johnny Depp takes the lead as Bulger, who with the help of an old friend in the FBI went on to rule the Boston underworld avoiding investigation and prosecution even in the wake of the vicious crimes he committed.
And Depp plays a psychopath very well which this film, to its detriment, never misses an opportunity to show. Instead of really delving into Bulger’s character and showing his rise and fall, Black Mass features scene after scene of him doing crazy things without any real need to.
It’s a gangster film about a man who committed many, many murders. Yes, you have to show that he’s a psychopath but his entire storyline seems to be sacrificed for shots of him doing crazy things. And because of this the film never really gets going and we miss out on other things that could have been explored.
Probably the more interesting character in the film is the FBI agent who helped Bulger avoid investigation and prosecution for many years. John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton (Warrior, Exodus), grew up on the same streets as Bulger and wasn’t really corrupted by money but instead by a little brother like affection and admiration that he held for the gangster. It’s a unique take on how a law enforcement agent ends up corrupted and Edgerton’s portrayal of Connolly as a sycophantic, suck-up to Bulger is compelling.
He is obsessed with protecting him even when his marriage falls apart and it’s clear other law enforcement agencies are onto him. Both he and Bulger are from South Boston, a place that values loyalty above all else, and even as an FBI agent Connolly somehow can’t stop being loyal to the big guy from the old neighbourhood.
The performances are all pretty solid. Depp underwent a significant transformation and his haunting, cold blue eyes in the film make him look subhuman. Another strong performance is from Jesse Plemons (TV’s Fargo) who plays an associate of Bulger, Kevin Weeks.
The film seems to cover a hundred things but can’t choose a centre to focus on. It begins storylines and asks questions that it neither really finishes nor answers. A prime example of this is Whitey’s relationship with his brother.
While Whitey was strangling and shooting his way to the top of Boston’s underworld, his brother Billy rose to become the most powerful politician in the city. Played by another star actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, the film doesn’t delve deep into the brothers’ relationship. When the biggest gangster and the biggest politician in a city are brothers, it’s bound to cause tension, right? But the two have only a handful of scenes together which aren’t very meaningful.
Instead of telling the story of Whitey Bulger Black Mass feels more like a greatest ‘hits’ compilation of the gangster. It goes through scene after scene of what he did, who he shot and what he stole. And because of this the plot never gets time to develop properly and at the end of the film you can’t help but feel unsatisfied.
122 minutes (See IFCO for details)
Black Mass is released 27th November 2015