Review: Black Mass (2015)

black mass

BLACK MASS is a frustrating beast. I’d recommend you just watch THE DEPARTED again instead as it’s a much better Boston gangsters and informants movie  that was partly based on Whitey Bulger’s story anyway.

In the 1970s and 1980s, few names struck as much fear into the hearts of those who lived and worked in South Boston as James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). Bulger and his gang’s rise becomes meteoric when he strikes a deal with FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) for free movement and non-interference with his crimes in exchange for information on Bulger’s competitors. But can Bulger ever be truly controlled, and is anything really worth Connolly selling his soul to the devil?

The makeup used in the film to transform the cast into infamous figured at various stages of their life isn’t quite J. EDGAR-level awful, but it’s bad. One of the first things we see in the film is poor old Jesse Plemons caked in jarring old-age makeup in close-up, then we see him in an unconvincing curly wig as a younger man a few moments later. We are forced of course to regard Johhny Depp looking nothing like Whitey Bulger and more like Gary Oldman as Dracula with Day-glo eyes throughout. Particularly illusion-shattering is a scene where Bulger is exercising at home before doing something nefarious and you can actually see the prosthetic skin fold around his neck as he does sit ups. I think the intention was to make him look more demon than human, presumably to emphasise the monstrosity of his character, but it’s too much. He ceases to be a chilling real-world monster and becomes a cartoon character.

The plotting is all over the place. We never get any real sense of what the FBI are actually getting out of their deal with Bulger. We just have lots of disconnected crime vignettes where Whitey gets to order the death of whoever he likes while the feds turn a blind eye. Agents pass some apparently important piles of evidence around and Connolly rockets up the ranks, but we don’t know why. You need more connective tissue, thematic juxtaposition or at least a consistent build of momentum to keep a story like this from coming off the rails.

The script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth is generally uninspiring stuff, the aesthetic throughout the film is grey and dull. Does every major movie set in Boston have to feature a St Patrick’s Day parade? I know Bostonians are proud of their Irish links, but there’s more to their culture than that. In short, there’s very little for a solid cast like this to really get their teeth stuck in to.

Depp is fine, and so is Edgerton, both good at the long hard stare and conveying godlike levels of arrogance. It’s good to see Depp having to put some thought into a performance again, but the way they’ve made Bulger look is so distracting that it gets in the way of truly appreciating Depp’s skill, and I never found him scary as a character. Benedict Cumberbatch on the other hand is stunt-casting of the highest order. He plays Bulger’s senator brother so they’ve given him jowls to  square off his face and make him look more like Depp, which he still doesn’t. His coasting performance and wobbly accent suggest he wasn’t the best man for the job, but is simply in the film because SHERLOCK is so massive.

Scott Cooper is a good director – he got great performances out of his cast in CRAZY HEART and he brought a striking look and a hard edge to OUT OF THE FURNACE. He may have attempted too much here or just never quite grasped what was required to tell this story in a compelling way. Black Mass is not a terrible film – at least Johnny Depp is trying again – but the spell is broken all too often and the whole thing becomes disjointed to the point of incomprehensibility. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Spike Jonze, Rian Johnson and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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