Whilst watching Black Mass I was imagining being asked what I think of it. I was brewing phrases like ‘well-paced’, ‘great cast’ and, dare I admit, ‘sprawling crime epic’. As soon as I snapped out of that daydream I realised that for the first time in as long as my memory serves me, I could feel my eyelids drooping to dangerous levels of cinema-sleepiness. What should have been paced effectively felt slow and uneventful. An experienced cast is suffocated by an unspectacular script and excitable editing. Most criminally, though, Black Mass sprawls its limbs so anarchically that we’re left without a tenable core to this story.
Scott Cooper’s third feature is based on the real life events of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), a notoriously psychopathic and elusive gangster hailing from south Boston. The narrative is forced along at gunpoint by interviews with Bulger’s former cohorts, now ‘ratting’ him out for reduced sentences, recalling their nefarious deeds. We see Whitey rise from threatened small-timer to fully fledged kingpin, facilitated by an alliance with FBI agent and childhood friend John Connelly (Joel Edgerton). Black Mass spans from 1975 to 2011, from the recent aftermath of his release from Alcatraz to his eventual capture in Santa Monica, California. As viewers, we are given glimpses of various ‘points-of-interest’ in Bulger’s life, most of the time amounting to him or one of his goons killing someone.
The structure is where the problems begin, and from the opening scene in which Bulger’s protégé Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) is inclined to inform us where our story begins in a police interview, it became apparent that these characters were destined to be caged by Cooper’s storytelling. While I don’t mean to be overly critical of a legitimate method of narrative adhesion, it represents a disappointing lack of imagination, something the film’s mercurial subject certainly isn’t lacking in. What I can say for the interviews is that it’s refreshing to see these gangsters admit unflinchingly to their heinous crimes, as opposed to the silent treatment trope commonly seen in this genre. Still, the interviews act merely as intertitles, and we’re never granted access to what the supporting players really think of Whitey.
I feel it necessary to talk about the acting in Black Mass because it’s been such a popular talking point in the build-up to the film’s release. Johnny Depp is not winning an Oscar for this film and a nomination shouldn’t be assumed. On the upside, it’s the best he’s performed in a while, and shows what he can do when not tied up by Tim Burton or anyone else using him as a mind-numbing eccentric. Joel Edgerton is also, as usual, a credit to the film, and his character’s arc and motivation could have been the key to rescuing Black Mass from mediocrity. Other than those two, big names are given little to do. Benedict Cumberbatch does an agreeable job as Billy Bulger, and even references ‘Baker Street’. Peter Sarsgaard makes a brilliant cameo but is swiftly silenced. Corey Stoll is fiery but pointless.
Black Mass is an example of a relatively inexperienced filmmaker mishandling a broad source material and set of actors. This isn’t even Johnny Depp’s best film about a notorious gangster (see Public Enemies), let alone one of the better gangster films of recent years.
More like this: Goodfellas (1990)