Writers: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, David Harbour, Kevin Bacon
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Rating: R (brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use)
Black Mass brings together a huge ensemble cast with actors from all over, coupled with director Scott Cooper and a team which has had plenty of experience working together on past films. The story is true, yet Depp’s attempts to contact the real Whitey Bulger failed. Cooper has a history of working well with a wide cast of actors and giving specific direction.
John Connolly and James “Whitey” Bulger grew up together on the streets of South Boston. Decades later, in the late 1970s, they would meet again. By then, Connolly was a major figure in the FBI’s Boston office and Whitey had become godfather of the Irish Mob. What happened between them – a dirty deal to trade secrets and take down Boston’s Italian Mafia in the process – would spiral out of control, leading to murders, drug dealing, racketeering indictments, and, ultimately, to Bulger making the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. (IMBD)
Violence: Multiple shootings, sometimes point blank. A strangling, torture, a few brutal beatings.
Language/Crude Humor: Littered with profanity, specifically the F-word. Some sex jokes.
Sexual Content: Really none to speak of. One scene is sort of sensual but not in an arousing way.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Alcohol drank at bars and mentions of drug use.
Positive Content: There isn’t much. Black Mass is very bleak, so there is little time for niceties. The name “black mass” carries with it the idea of an unholy alliance, with criminals and criminal justice.
My setup for film review is key to the process. It takes time and preparation. I need a nice view. I also need the original soundtrack from the film playing as I write. It just feels natural. Finally, before beginning I like to watch a trailer or scene from the film just to help jog my memory. It was while reviewing the trailer, that I’ve tagged above, when my conclusion for Scott Cooper’s Black Mass was twisted from what I had originally thought.
Black Mass isn’t a great ensemble film, though it tries to draw from the endless wealth of cameo and star roles quite frequently. No, as the trailer loudly proclaims, the standout here is Mr. Depp. Many decry him for his silly and strange roles as of the last decade or so, but here is something entirely extraordinary. I reckon my bent towards the unpopular opinion of “Depp can do no wrong” is dedicated to my employment history.
See, I worked at a summer camp, and during my time, I dressed as the most eccentric pirate of the bunch, “Captain” Jack Sparrow. It was jolly fun, as I pranced around in-character, whimsical and noticeably needed to be told the sun-baked, half-drunken charisma which Sparrow role playing induced on me had to be toned down for a family friendly audience.
Drawing from my own personal history, it was abundantly clear to me that I will always enjoy Johnny Depp. I’m not sure if it is be the indelible impression his characters have left on me, or that I much dislike the negative gang-up the majority of critics give him. It’s situations like these when I wonder if most critics have enough backbone to formulate their own opinion, rather than scavenge Google and forums like vultures during opening film weekends, hoping to find a popular opinion to forward their blog and bring traffic.
See, Black Mass is likely nothing more than a “Best Actor” nominee. Yet, it’s not even that for its writing. We follow the brutally efficient Whitey Bulger, but know hardly anything about him. We just watch him do things. Why does he do things? Like his associates and law-breaking FBI “friends”, we sit in nervous lumps, waiting to see the next cruel act Whitey will commit. However, we haven’t the slightest clue why he is who he is. It’s tiresome, and it shows on the faces of those around him. They expect the macabre, and they are fine with carrying out the unspeakable upon anyone who merely drops the tiniest hint of disloyalty. Whitey has a history of loyalty, and to see it burdened by anyone else draws him into action, even if murderous.
Much of the talent seems wasted. Benedict Cumberbatch tries to be a Bostonian. Dakota Johnson shows up for maybe less than eight minutes of screen time. Adam Scott doesn’t need a mustache. I suppose there is some development on the front with Whitey’s boys, specifically Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane.
Despite the confusing exposition of Black Mass, Scott Cooper directs an eerie sense of dread throughout. With Masanobu Takayanagi at the helm for photography, we might be reminded of their cooperation on last year’s Out of the Furnace (which I found to be stunning, regardless of the silly popular opinion). Even though the writing is not at all up to par with the ensemble, Cooper does wonderfully with directing his characters.
The camera more than anything else helps to tell the story, and this is something we have learned through previous Cooper films. Cooper loves intentional composition, and using color, or the lack of, to get a point across. Black Mass is almost painted with a brush that saps color and saturation like a parasite. Oh yes, Bulger is the parasite. He claims to love Southy (southern Boston), but it’s obvious he sucks the life from it, akin to a vampire, as some reviewers have described.
Depp commands his scenes, like his character commands those around him. He is abrasive, taking offense to the slightest comment, and making offenders pay with a fatal debt they can only afford once. He falls into his character, and we forget it’s him. It is grotesque and interesting all at once. As uninteresting as the script can be, his dialogue and characterization carry the film. We may know little about him when it’s all said and done, but he elevates himself. It’s an important role, and we hope it carries through to more outstanding performances, with endurable writing.
Black Mass has some inspiration from Goodfellas, and you might think it’s headed that direction from the opening scene. It continues to feel like a lot is going on, but nothing actually happens. It’s kind of nice to have loose ends tied up at the end of the film via photos and captions, but at that point, no one cares much for the on-screen characters, but perhaps moreso for their real life counterparts.
Black Mass is barely a character study or biography, and to be honest, doesn’t find its mark or comfort outside of Depp’s performance. It is definitely worth a watch, but only for Depp.
+ Outstanding performance from Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger + Colors and composition match the mood and desperation of the characters + Scenes with Bulger are written very well
- Bloated ensemble cast with very few characters used well - Script filled with exposition that feels boring
The Bottom Line
“In Depp, we trust” is the mantra of Black Mass. Everything leans on his characterization.