Movies about real-life organized crime figures are a genre unto themselves, and like other genres they often fall victim to an expected, generic framework. Like romantic comedies featuring a couple who meet, hit it off, hit a road block, and then reunite for the happy ending, organized crime dramas based on true stories far too frequently follow a rigid formula. Charismatic criminal, brutal killings played for casual shock value, a parade of loyal henchmen, dead henchmen, and the women who exist to satisfy whims, and end credits detailing how much time each of the survivors served in prison. Why look, here’s one such example now.
James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a vicious hood working all manner of schemes on the streets of Boston, and as a local boy he commands both respect and fear from those around him. He cuts a memorable path through the criminal element both for his reputation for violence and his menacing appearance, but his efforts to bring the Winter Hill Gang – a collective term for specific members of Boston’s criminal element – to greater power are stymied by the increasing presence of the Italian mafia. Opportunity arrives in the form of FBI Agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), himself a local boy hoping to climb the ranks, who cuts a deal with his old friend Bulger that’s beneficial to them both. The gangster will provide information about his competition, the much higher-profile Angiulo family, and the agent will protect him from prosecution. Connelly’s zeal in taking down”the mafia” – and his desire to stay chummy with his childhood friend – leaves him turning a blind eye to Bulger’s own burgeoning criminal activity involving murder, the IRA, and jai alai.
Black Mass is ostensibly the story of Whitey Bulger’s bloody rise to power and the various people who fell around him during his ascent, but in practice he’s little more than a charismatic monster who ends the film exactly as he begins it. Director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) and writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth return to him again and again for highlights and elaborate pontifications, but the only character who appears to be on an arc is Connelly. That probably wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the unfortunate fact that Connelly is under-written and over-acted.
The under-written part applies to pretty much everyone here, but most of the strong supporting cast – Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Adam Scott’s mustache, Corey Stoll, Juno Temple – are fine in their limited roles. Benedict Cumberbatch trips over his work-in-progress Boston accent a couple times, but both Julianne Nicholson and Rory Cochrane deliver affecting, emotionally-nuanced performances with limited screen time.
And then there’s Edgerton. We’re meant to see Connelly as a cautionary tale, a good man turning bad in a misguided effort to do good, but we only see him as an already sketchy agent with a mouth of a used car salesman and the hair to match. Instead it’s his wife (Nicholson) who informs us as to the integrity he once had while Edgerton seems satisfied trampling through every scene with big, showy expressions and frequent mugging.
It’s ultimately Depp who creates many of the film’s most entertaining moments with what could very well have been a cartoon character. The makeup work is hit and miss (mostly hit), but the power comes from a performance that’s equal parts playful and menacing. He’s repeatedly given opportunities to take control of the room with a soft-spoken memory or story that slowly, surely turns threatening. The film’s best scene is a quietly terrifying interaction between Depp and Nicholson that’s both mesmerizing and hair-raising.
The story tells a specific tale, one we already know, but it has nothing more to say on the topic beyond “here’s a vague look at what happened.” Attempts are made to humanize Bulger with the deaths of two people close to him, but while someone comments that he was “never the same again” we’re left wondering because he’s the same throughout the entire film.
Comparisons to the films of Martin Scorsese are inevitable (and apparently obligatory), but while Goodfellas and Casino evoke a time and a place through their characters and events Cooper’s latest evokes nothing more than a reminder that Depp is a fantastic actor when he wants to be. Granted, that’s an impressive feat given the last several years of his career, but it’s hardly enough to hang a gangster epic onto. Cooper’s talent across his three films (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) appears limited to telling flatly inert tales headlined by strong actors.
Black Mass is a film built on performances – big and small, good and bad – with nothing else much to offer. There are bad people. Sometimes they die, sometimes they go to jail, but they’ll always be recapped by the end credits.
The Upside: Johnny Depp is good again; Julianne Nicholson and Rory Cochrane give memorable supporting turns; several fantastic actors got paychecks
The Downside: Unwise, half-hearted focus on FBI agent’s story; Joel Edgerton overdoes it; film feels flat and stuck in the generic elements of the genre