Black Mass Review

Posted: September 25, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

black massWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

In 2009, Michael Mann’s crime film Public Enemies was met with complete indifference from critics and audiences. Personally, I quite like the film, which is stylish, well-made, and features a great turn from Johnny Depp. The film received some solid reviews, but was mostly forgotten and Depp’s performance as John Dillinger taken for granted. Six years later and Depp’s performance as real life gangster Whitey Bulger in Black Mass is being touted as a major work form the veteran actor. What’s the difference? In a word; timing. While Michael Mann’s film was released at a time when Depp was still taking varied roles from films like Sweeney Todd to Finding Neverland, Black Mass comes after a string of disasters like The Lone Ranger, Transcendence, and Mortdecai, where Depp got by on simply being eccentric and strange. To switch from those types of roles to one where he plays a violent and vicious criminal is now a big deal in a way it wasn’t in 2009.

The film’s plot kicks off in 1975 following small-time Boston hood James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), who leads his own gang. Whitey is contacted by John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), a former friend turned FBI agent who wishes to form an alliance with Whitey, who will feed the feds information in return for protection. Whitey agrees, and with that basis begins to build his own criminal empire.

The narrative here follows your typical crime film structure. A gangster starts out small in his neighborhood, moves his way up, hits a peak, and finally meets their downfall. Black Mass fits this template and, while the film is competently put together, Scott Cooper doesn’t inject the film with any style or energy to help it stand out. In particular, Black Mass is really trapped in the shadow of Martin Scorsese. The more blue collar crime feel is very similar to Goodfellas, and Whitey’s moments of unpredictable violence echo Joe Pesci’s character in that seminal film. However the real Scorsese film Black Mass suffers from by comparison is The Departed. Both films share a Boston setting, Irish culture, animosity with Italian rivals, themes of deception, and the villain in The Departed is even loosely based on the real Bulger. Scorsese’s film nails all of these elements so seamlessly that Black Mass just feels like a half-hearted retread.

Even beyond its comparisons to similar films, I don’t think Black Mass works very well. The film is meant to show Whitey’s rise as a gang-lord, but we don’t really get a sense of that. The film starts with Whitey as a low level gangster, and then after teaming up with Connelly the film cuts forward and we’re told Whitey’s has become a bigger fish. Not actually seeing the transition robs the film of some satisfying material. The film never really pays off on Whitey using the FBI to take out his own competition. That’s a big part of what made Bulger unique and all we get here are a few minor scenes depicting that process. The narrative is also compromised by a flawed framing device where the story is told through the confessional tapes of Whitey’s associates years after the fact. This tactic adds nothing since their own perspective on the events is irrelevant. The film doesn’t function as a very effective character study either. For all the hype surrounding Johnny Depp’s performance, Whitey Bulger is not all that interesting a character. We learn that he’s a vicious and violent gangster, but there isn’t much else there. That wouldn’t really matter if the narrative surrounding Bulger was strong, but it isn’t/

Of course, that brings me to the big reason Black Mass has received so much attention; Johnny Depp’s performance. Well, it’s good, in fact it’s almost certainly the best turn he’s given since Public Enemies. Depp is still covered in a lot of make-up and playing a somewhat over-the-top character, but he succeeds due to some smart choices in Whitey’s mannerisms and his voice. He’s a threatening premise and Depp is also entertaining to watch. Is it a brilliant return to the complex and unique reals he used to take? Not really, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction, and fun in its own right. The supporting cast is full of recognizable faces, but none of them really shine. The possible exception to this is Joel Edgerton, who sneaks into the role of John Connelly well and avoids overplaying the character.

Black Mass is a competently crafted film, it features a memorable turn from Johnny Depp, and it even has a few nicely staged sequences. Unfortunately, that’s not enough for a film like this. Put it simply, there are way too many similar crime films which execute at the highest level for something like this to really register. That may not be entirely fair, but truth be told Black Mass is also a pretty flawed work even when removed from comparison. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but it isn’t very substantial or interesting either.


  1. Dan O. says:

    Good review PG. The cast helped this to become more than just your traditional gangster flick.

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