Black Mass is an exciting film with a remarkable cast, but falls short in its attempt to chronicle the unbelievable criminal reign of Whitey Bulger, and is ultimately underwhelming.
Before the film’s Tuesday screening, Harvard Avenue was packed with people crammed against blockades, struggling to get a glimpse of stardom as helicopters flew overhead and police officers maintained order. The crowd had formed with the nearly-sole intent of seeing Johnny Depp as he entered the Coolidge Corner Theater for a screening of Black Mass. It was clear that the buzz of excitement stems from a personal connection between the movie’s story and the city that lived with Bulger for years.
In Black Mass, Depp proves that he is worth that huge crowd, playing the infamous Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. His performance is dramatic and a welcome change from his recent goofy roles in Mortdecai and Dark Shadows. Depp’s Bulger is intense, focused, and frightening, while still managing to refrain from playing into the classic gangster caricatures that have developed in cinema since James Cagney.
The film’s cast, especially Depp, is its greatest asset. Looking through the entire list of actors and actresses, it is almost absurd how many quality actors play a part in this film. The all-star cast list of Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Whitey’s brother Massachusetts Senate Majority Leader Billy Bulger, Dakota Johnson playing Bulger’s wife, Joel Edgerton, playing corrupt FBI agent John Connelly, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple, Corey Stoll, and Adam Scott, lends the film considerable credibility.
The film’s problems lie heavily in the story itself and the way it is told. Bulger’s decade-spanning criminal career is legendary in the city of Boston, a tale so convoluted and horribly absurd that it can almost be hard to believe. Bulger ruled the city’s criminal world for years while operating as an FBI informant of sorts, surviving and thriving under FBI protection (instigated by, Connelly, agent and childhood acquaintance) while simultaneously using the FBI to further his criminal empire. The fact that a man would be able to engage in serious criminal activity, including a number of vicious murders, while being listed as a “Top Echelon Informant” for the FBI is baffling in itself.
The problem lies in how to tell the story in one linear movie. This story is complex, involves many players, and crosses decades. Because of this the film relies heavily on exposition, detracting from the dynamism of the story itself. Various people appear briefly in the movie for the sole purpose of playing their role in Bulger’s criminal legacy. This in-and-out aspect of character development detracts from the audience’s ability to care about the people who die at Bulger’s hands or the people struggling to bring him to justice.
Another hurdle is the fact that the story being told is true. These events occurred in Boston as they are, with creative license, depicted in the film. The people depicted in this film existed and the grisly fates many of them met are well-documented. This underlying factuality caused various scenes in the film to seem odd and uncomfortable. The soaring strings playing a lamenting score during John Connelly’s arrest, as though we as an audience were supposed to empathize with the disgraced former agent, was just one example of this. In fictional films such as The Godfather and shows such as The Sopranos, it is easier to empathize with fictional characters despite the wrong they do, but when one knows that John Connelly, a very real human being, was responsible in a number of ways for the havoc Bulger wreaked across Boston, it is very difficult to feel sorry for him.
In the film’s best scenes, Depp evoked the horrific and intimidating magnetism of Bulger to such an extent that the entire theater fell silent, hypnotized and chilled by his portrayal. If this level of dynamism existed in each scene, the film would be much stronger as a whole. Visually, the film was generally pleasurable. Various Boston sights are visible throughout, including a number of overhead shots. The film relied heavily on close-ups throughout, constantly showing us each character’s facial reaction to the events around them. In many films this can feel forced, as though the director wants us to see how well the actors can emote and cause us to exclaim, “Look at that! He has feelings!” But with a cast as superb as this one and an experienced director in Scott Cooper, the close-ups manage to succeed in conveying the constant subtleties within each performance and enhance the quality of the overall scene.
The film managed to hold interest throughout, despite the over-reliance on exposition and the difficult-to-adapt plot. It stacks up relatively well against the other crime dramas cinema has to offer and explores a fascinating and extremely troublesome time in Boston’s history. Johnny Depp gives his best performance since Fear and Loathing and makes this film, despite its troubles, a worthwhile watch.
Featured Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures