“If nobody sees it, it didn't happen.”
Black Mass is Scott Cooper’s follow up to his dark thriller, Out of the Furnace. This gangster film centers on the true story of one of Boston’s most wanted criminals, Whitey Bulger, an Irish mobster who served as an informant for the FBI against the Italian Mafia for many years, during which time he used the special treatment to get away with committing several gruesome crimes of his own and rise to the top. The film is extremely slow paced and it focuses on the small details of Whitey’s crime life, but it is also a breath of fresh air for its realistic portrayal of the gritty criminal life without sensationalizing these gangsters. The violence is real and gruesome and not something worth celebrating here. It does however prove why audiences love the more fast paced fictitious portrayal of these criminal, because it can become a dull exercise at times to portray these characters as real people. The greatest strength of Black Mass is without a doubt Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Whitey because it was exciting to finally see him play a straight role once again. He’s menacing without going over the top. The prosthetics were a bit distracting, but it was worth it to get to see Depp playing this older man. Black Mass tries too hard to remain authentic to the real life events and by doing so it becomes a dull procedural at times, but Depp’s performance makes it worth recommending.
The film centers on Whitey’s relationship with a Boston FBI agent named John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who struck a deal with him during the course of several years. Whitey was asked to snitch on the Italian mafia which would lead to more arrests for Connolly while Whitey was allowed to get away with his criminal undertakings. It was a win-win situation for both of them. The story then closely follows how Whitey went about doing his business with his entrusted men, Kevin (Jesse Plemons) and Steve (Rory Cochrane), performing gruesome executions while the police looked the other way. Meanwhile, Whitey’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) was rising to the top of the Massachusetts Senate, but he doesn’t play a major role in the story. Other characters who are simply introduced but not given much to do are Whitey’s partner: Lindsey (Dakota Johnson), Connolly’s right hand man in the agency: John Morris (David Harbour), and Connolly’s wife: Marianne (Julianne Nicholson). The film uses these characters to explore some of the family dynamics and when it does it works to its advantage, but the film feels like it is missing some cohesiveness between each separate individual. Take for instance a scene where Whitey is sharing a meal with Lindsey and their son while he is explaining to him how to get away with hitting a boy in school who is bullying him. The scene works perfectly to give us a sense of how Whitey thinks and acts, but it doesn’t do anything for the film narratively and it feels like a separate scene all together. There are several moments like this that seem to be presented only as facts, but these facts don’t add up to much and it drags out the premise making us lose interest in the story.
There are some great scenes where Depp is allowed to shine, but other than that the film does miss a lot of its targets. The talented cast is mostly wasted with Benedict Cumberbatch, Juno Temple, and Kevin Bacon given very little to do. Depp and Edgerton stand out since the primary focus of the film is on their relationship, but the side plots don’t work. While the film tries to focus on other characters it never feels connected to the main relationship that is so central to the story. Johnny Depp might garner some attention for his performance, but the film will quickly be forgotten come award time.