Black Mass, 2015.
Directed by Scott Cooper.
Starring Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard and Corey Stoll.
The true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf.
Taking on the challenging story of adapting the life of James “Whitey” Bulger was always going to be difficult and Black Mass combines strokes of visual and acting genius with a clunky script and a timeline that never quite works.
Covering 1975 through to 1994 when he went on the run, a lot is packed into the 137 minute run time. Whilst it’s undeniable that that the movie is packed full of tense scenes and it is a gripping story; unfortunately the jumping around in time misses out so much information about how Bulger went from a small time criminal into the most wanted man in South Boston history. Huge chunks of Bulger’s life ended up on the cutting room floor (Sienna Miller as his wife is nowhere to be seen), meaning that we get an incomplete picture of this iconic criminal.
Where Black Mass is at its strongest is in the performances. Much has been said about “Depp’s return to form” and his chameleonic performance here is arguably the best he’s done since Public Enemies; but did he ever really go away? True his recent films have had faults, but this isn’t the McConaissance. Depp has proved time and again that he’s a gifted actor and Black Mass is a sigh of relief for all those that thought we were stuck with the Jack Sparrow caricature. His performance goes beyond the tremendous physical transformation – which is impressive. His violent outbursts are electrifying and one truly disturbing scene between him and Julianne Nichols is accomplished with no violence. He simply intimidates her, touches her around the neck not too roughly, but enough to make the whole cinema uncomfortable.
Joel Edgerton proves again that there isn’t an accent he can’t do with his terrific portrayal of FBI agent John Connolly. A frustrating character to watch, Edgerton is able to keep him interesting despite the constant errors in judgement. There’s also ample support from Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Billy, Kevin Bacon as a hard FBI big-wig, Jesse Plemons as a low level enforcer and much more. With a cast this good, it’s a shame that the script doesn’t live up to expectations.
Framed using reflective interviews from Whitey’s gang mates, the story flashes backwards and forwards without adding much depth. Whilst it’s an interesting plot device, it’s not used consistently and the time jumps are jarring. Female characters are also lacking throughout. With Juno Temple, Julianne Nichols and Dakota Johnson not getting that much meaty dialogue or scenes.
The recreation of South Boston is meticulous and you can tell that director Cooper has revelled in every detail. From the period cars through to clothes, hair and so on; it’s a visually pleasing film despite the violence. The score is also note perfect throughout – especially when the audience know that someone is walking to their deaths, we hear the tiniest hint of music which builds tension expertly.
Black Mass is an interesting film to watch if you’re interested in a standard gangster movie. If you’re looking to see something new and original, this isn’t the right place to look. Strong performances aside, there’s a lot wrong with this film. Considering it focuses on one of the most interesting criminals in American history, it’s slightly lack lustre.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Helen Murdoch is a freelance writer – Follow me on Twitter