Black Mass Review

(2.5 STARS)

Black Mass feels perfunctory and uninspired. It appears to exist because the story of James “Whitey” Bulger is one that should be chronicled in a narrative film and unfortunately not because those involved have something unique to say about it. As such, it takes a paint-by-numbers approach to 20 years of Bulger’s life, and while its obvious inspirations (Goodfellas among them) and the inherent talent among its cast and crew prevent it from ever going totally off the rails, it’s not a film that left much of an impression on me. Not long after seeing it, both positive and negative details have flitted away like fugazi fucking fairy dust.

Johnny Depp plays Bulger in a performance that lives somewhere between good and great. Joel Edgerton is his FBI counterpart, John Connolly, and his work lives somewhere between great and exceptional. The two characters forged an alliance in the late-1970s that supposedly allowed the FBI to take down the powerful Italian mafia of Boston. In reality, it simply led to an unfettered rise to power for Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. They used the shield that was John Connolly to steal, smuggle, intimidate, run illegal gambling operations, and kill lots and lots of people. But feel no sympathy for Connolly: he profited from Bulger’s successes and deceived every one of his colleagues for the better part of two decades.

The film gets a few other things right besides its two lead performances. Its sense of place is strong, and even stronger is the way it depicts some people’s willingness to forgive or overlook another’s wrongdoing because the neighborhood dictates it. Black Mass‘ women are extremely underwritten, yet they overcome the script’s deficiencies and turn out strong, memorable performances—especially Julianne Nicholson. And the cinematography is pretty spectacular. (Bravo, Masanobu Takayanagi.)

What the film gets right about place, it gets very, very wrong about time. That’s not to say the period dress and set decoration feels inauthentic or inaccurate. But the idea that Black Mass takes place over 20 years or so is horribly conveyed to the audience. There’s one monumental even in Bulger’s life that signals a shift in the way he operates and appears to skip the film ahead a few years or so, but outside of that, there’s little reason to not assume this is a contained, quickly moving chronology.

Worse still is the way the film just brushes over the things Bulger does. It’s not that it in any significant way discounts his bad deeds or tries to justify them, but nothing lingers. If we’re going to compare it to Goodfellas, it needs a “cooking pasta in prison” scene … or a “Spider gets shot” scene. Really any scene in Black Mass could have been remotely comparable to any scene in Goodfellas and it would be a drastically better film. (That goes for basically every movie ever, to be fair.) But what Scorsese’s film did so well that Black Mass doesn’t is breathe, pause, stop to talk about what’s going on and why. It appears to want to do this with a storytelling method involving Bulger’s closest confidants being used as police sources after everything goes to hell. It’s a technique that opens the film and pops up intermittently, but it ultimately disappears inexplicably and unfortunately.

Depp’s work might get overpraised because it’s such an improvement over the dreck he’s turned out lately, even though it’s a far cry from his very best performances. More encouraging, as I eluded to earlier, is what Edgerton does. On top of a solid performance and great direction in The Gift, he’s having a quietly excellent year.

A handful of other actors either underwhelm (Benedict Cumberbatch, Adam Scott) or aren’t given enough to do (Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane). That’s sort of the story of the film. What it gets right is mostly small and relatively inconsequential to the overall picture. What it gets wrong prevents it from ever getting off the ground. Scott Cooper is a talented filmmaker, but he can’t turn water into wine. Black Mass might look like an expensive Pinot, but it’s as exciting as a plain glass of room-temperature H2O.

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  1. Pingback: Reviews: Black Mass (2015) | Online Film Critics Society

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