Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple
Director: Scott Cooper
Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Director Scott Cooper's (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) take on the life and times of James "Whitey" Bulger; one of the most notorious Boston mobsters in U.S. history, is a real howler; a hilarious mess of a movie which unconvincingly tries to persuade us that it's about something other than meaningless machismo. The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (based on a book by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerald O'Neil) plays like a dutiful High School book report on a mythical figure; lacking a narrative center and most importantly, the kind of emotional complexity that would have made the story compelling. There are certainly ingredients here for a subversive black comedy about the ineptitude of the FBI or a stylish stab at the clinical nature of brooding psychopaths, but Cooper and his writers instead go for a self-serious tone that for most of it's running time plays like a tepid genre exercise, before eventually descending into the realm of unintentional comedy.
The heart of the narrative involves the unholy alliance between Bulger (Johnny Depp) and FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), who partner up in order to run the Italian mafia out of Boston. The two men grew up together and shared some kind of affinity for the neighborhood, but their connection remains tenuous, much like everything else in the film. Characters talk a lot about loyalty, brotherhood, and ties that bond, but the movie never convinces us of such things. The sense of place, so important in something like Scorsese's The Departed (with which Black Mass shares many similarities) is largely absent here. The film is simply a series of dour "incidents" where characters sit around and talk like foul-mouthed gangsters from better genre pictures, interspersed with moments of brutal violence.There's a pudgy Bulger associate (Jesse Plemons), a powerful state Senator (Benedict Cumberbatch), a contentious FBI boss (Kevin Bacon) and a jittery loose cannon (Peter Sarsgaard) among many others, but despite a game cast, they all feel like accessories to Depp's cartoonish villainy. Much maligned for his goofy roles in films like Alice in Wonderland and this year's Mortdecai, Depp seems to be trying again for the first time in ages, which presents a very different kind of problem. Though he's certainly taking a more low-key approach to a role that could have gone for Jack Nicholson-style theatrics, the physical affectations; (bald cap, sinister contacts, etc) simply reaffirm his inability to portray characters who aren't wearing ridiculous costumes. In a way, Depp plays Bulger like a ghoulish demon lurking in the background; ready to pounce upon his prey with vampire-like fangs. While this could have worked had the film been a dark comedy; here it backfires because it's clear we are meant to take his performance deadly serious.
Backroom negotiations are made. Cynical burst of violence erupt. Tough lowlifes throw around f-bombs. The idealistic FBI man climbs the ladder of success. The crime kingpin's myth grows as he slowly starts taking over the city. Everything is told through a clunky framing device involving arrested participants relating their impressions of the events. See where this is going? It's not only the dreary familiarity that dooms Black Mass, but the tone. Instead of punching things up with snappy editing and bravura filmmaking, ala Scorsese's Goodfellas, or making a methodical procedural in the mold of David Fincher's Zodiac, Cooper opts for formulaic plotting and a snail-like pace. Making a slow-burn crime thriller is perfectly fine in theory, but Black Mass is a film without momentum, dramatic stakes, or a single character worth investing in. Of course, Cooper is attempting to de-glamorize this lifestyle and reveal the crippling consequences of making a pact with the devil, but even here, his film falls flat. Edgerton gives a credible performance as the dim-witted Connelly, but his interactions with Bulger, which should bristle with uneasy tension, are conventional to a fault.
Black Mass desperately wants us to be swept up in the sprawl of evil men doing evil things while also wagging a judgmental finger at us. The thrill of seeing male posturing in the form of fraternity has long lost it's sting, and the throng of wasted female characters filtering in and out of the proceedings is yet another reminder of the rampant misogyny of this well-worn milieu. Poor Dakota Johnson as Bulger's former flame; valiantly acting her ass off opposite a dead-eyed Depp. Poor Julianna Nicholson as Edgerton's long-suffering wife, saying things like "that Whitney is no good for ya", while in one hilariously bad faux-horror scene, allowing Depp's boogeyman to stroke her face while checking for a fever. Poor Juno Temple for…well, just poor Juno Temple. Setting a film set in a proverbial "man's world" doesn't necessarily mean you have to cast a bunch of talented actresses and then give them absolutely nothing to do.
Ultimately, this is a film without persecutive, depth, or anything that would redeem it's boring familiarity and caricatured take on the banality of evil. It just exits because it's a true-life crime story without taking into consideration why this particular rise and fall needed to be told in the first place. It has all the hallmarks of the genre; tough guy talk, bullets in the back of the head, sniveling criminals, and the heinous anti-hero giving a kindly old woman a hug, but it lacks that old fashioned Scorsese-esque throb of Catholic guilt that would have given it a pulse. Instead, what we get is power-point cinema; with Cooper and company ticking off all the boxes of a well-known crime saga. At the very least, Depp has another Halloween costume to add to his ever-expanding collection.