For about the past decade, and rightfully so, Johnny Depp has seen his Hollywood bad boy status slowly descend into that of self-parody. The once revered actor has taken on role after role of underwhelming eccentrics seemingly defined solely by their outlandish hats. Black Mass has been billed as a return to form for Depp, trading in his silly hats for a bald cap and heavy makeup to provide the actor with the visage of James “Whitey” Bulger, one of the most notorious gangsters in the history of Boston. The ensuing film is a mish-mash of decent acting, wasted opportunities, and gangster movie clichés.
The film opens with Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), a close confidant of Bulger’s, about to turn into a witness against his former boss. Flashing back to 1975, we see a young Weeks as he’s introduced into the underworld of Whitey Bulger before his character is pretty much jettisoned from the story – he’s not whacked, merely fading into the background. Whitey’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a rising star on the Massachusetts political scene, having just won election to the State Senate. Meanwhile, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) has just returned to his hometown in South Boston to work in the local FBI offices. Before long, Connolly and Bulger strike a deal where Whitey will provide the FBI with information about his rivals and be free to take the throne as the crime boss of Boston. The film then recaps various elements of Bulger’s extensive criminal enterprise over a decade, and Connolly’s attempts to conceal his activities in aiding the murderous crime syndicate.
For the most part, Black Mass is a well-acted affair, featuring Depp’s best performance in a long, long time. In any given scene Depp can play Bulger as funny then menacing or vice versa. Edgerton definitely brings his all to the duplicitous John Connolly. But each actor is underserved by the script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Not only is the framing device of confidants turned informants rather rote at this point, the dialogue that Edgerton is forced to spew falls just short of his character turning to his colleagues at the FBI and screaming, “I’m working with Whitey Bulger!” Then there’s the weird attempt to humanize Whitey Bulger, which quickly fades following the death of his young son.
Director Scott Cooper does get some nice looking shots into Black Mass, but he can’t ever bring all the disparate elements of the film into a cohesive picture. This is very much a movie that wants to have it all but can’t accomplish it under the constraints of its two-hour running time. A number of elements, like Bulger’s son, could’ve been excised and not affected the overall film, while other elements, like Bulger’s dabbling in fixing Jai-Alai games, could use a lot more depth. The same could be said about a number of the film’s characters, many of whom just fade in and out at a whim. The aforementioned Plemons seems like a crucial character at first and is quickly shoved aside. The same happens to characters played by Corey Stoll, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, Julianne Nicholson, and Dakota Johnson. Frustratingly, characters are briefly introduced and subsequently whacked, then Cooper fixates on the aftermath like their brutal demise is meant to mean something more to the audience than it does. Then again, Black Mass is much more concerned with the violent acts of its gangsters than giving us a better understanding as to why people are being whacked – it seems almost backwards.
Warts and all, Black Mass isn’t an entirely lifeless and boring affair, it’s just too familiar and makes a number of baffling choices in its storytelling. It is certainly nice to see Depp freed from the shackles of his own eccentricity, but the project as a whole never gels into anything more than an extended montage of brutality with little meaning. The cinematic legacy of James “Whitey” Bulger remains in being the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in The Departed. Black Mass, however, is neither a failure nor a triumph. It’s simply just a forgettable gangster movie. The only thing that people will remember from Black Mass are the silly Boston accents that the entire casts employs. Aside from that, Black Mass is just like that one gangster movie – you know, um, that one where people get whacked.