Black Mass might not be the exciting action-drama fans of gangster movies we’re looking for, but committed performances from Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton keep the film watchable.
Scott Cooper’s 3rd feature film, after Crazy Heart (2009) and Out of the Furnace (2013), is the crime drama Black Mass. The film is based on the book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance between the FBI and the Irish Mob, written by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill and published in 2001.
Black Mass, though labelled an action/crime film, is mainly a dialogue-driven drama that tells the life story of one of South Boston’s most wanted gangsters from the 70’s onwards, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, and his FBI friend and ally John Connolly. He helps Connolly to solve federal crimes, and in return he stays free from all legal charges against him. That, of course, does not last, and the bulk of the film explores what happens when all this corruption comes out.
The main plot, then, is framed around the hearing of the accused gang members of Bulger’s gang, Winter Hill, and is told as a chronological story from the 70s up to the 00s, making Black Mass more of a biopic than the action film some might have expected. And to be honest, I’m not really a fan of the gangster biopic, but I’ve of course seen the classics. I could easily put Black Mass in the same category as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) or Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997). Unfortunately, this one misses the extra punch to live up to these classics.
Black Mass has a rather weak plot, lacks complexity, and never reaches a real climax. There’s nothing that makes the audience want to sit on the tips of our chairs. Overall, the film is really one long continuity of small things happening without much suspense, though the strength of the actors manages to push the story forward.
The cast deserve a huge shout-out. Bulger is played by Johnny Depp, whose most popular roles in the last decade have seen him typecast as the silly moron and anti-hero, as in the Pirates of the Caribbean series (2003-2011) or in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2011). In Black Mass, Depp seems to finally break the curse of these typical roles, and is almost unrecognizable covered under heaps of make-up, a wig, and blue contacts.
Depp performs Bulger as a mobster with equal capacity for both cruelty and humanity. Throughout the film he retains his cold-blooded poker face, which unfortunately almost turns caricatural near the end. Depp’s performance – and, for the most part, his transformation – is nonetheless outstanding, but in my opinion not as remarkable as his role of Donnie in Donnie Brasco.
The real standout of the cast, however, is Joel Edgerton, playing the opportunistic, corrupt FBI agent John Connolly. Edgerton’s acting is never overdone, and always realistic. Other popular faces are Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s prosecutor, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s younger brother and member of the Massachusetts Senate, William M. Bulger. And then there’s Dakota Johnson, who plays the role of Whitey Bulger’s ex-mistress and mother of his son. Unfortunately, it’s impossible now to watch her acting without thinking about 50 Shades of Grey.
Besides the acting, another thing that keeps on catching our attention is the comical – and rather cynical – dialogue. In one scene, Bulger is supposed to tell off his son Douglas (Luke Ryan) after he has punched a kid in class. But instead of being mad at his son, he gives him tips to do the beating properly next time, saying “if nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”
And as is typical for a gangster movie, there’s also a lot of profanity: at one moment I started counting the “fuck(ing)s”, and although the amount couldn’t beat Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the number of curse words is still quite impressive.
The work of DOP Masanobu Takayanagi, known for his work on Silver Linings Playbook, also makes the film worth watching; he deftly manages to switch between close-ups and panoramic shots whenever it fits the moment best, and he plays with light and contrast to make the Bostonian setting less grey and chilly.
Lovers of fast-paced mafia films and the action of the crime genre should stay far away from Black Mass, because its lack of suspense and lackluster plot will surely disappoint. But for everyone else, the witty dialogue, unrecognizable Johnny Depp and superb aesthetic quality make the film well worth a watch.