Black Mass Review
Black Mass is a straight-talking biopic of mob boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Born and raised in a deprived area of South Boston – ‘Southie’ as he and his acolytes call it – Bulger rose to prominence as an informant for the FBI, manipulating the agency into taking out his rivals and ignoring his own misdeeds. Director Scott Cooper retells the story in a forthright, unoriginal way – failing to spur emotion and trotting out copious gangster flick tropes.
At the start of the story, Whitey (Johnny Depp) is a small-time crime boss. He dominates his neighbourhood, backed by a small group of cronies. Depp is at his best in this role, but the part doesn’t give him the opportunity to do a great deal. He excels at making Whitey calmly creepy – even to his wife (Dakota Johnson), and his make-up and bright blue contact lenses contribute to his pallid, otherworldly complexion. The character's emotional range, however, doesn't go much beyond this and quiet rage.
Whitey is contacted by his childhood friend and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who offers him the opportunity to work as an informant. Gradually, Whitey plays the FBI in order to further his power over the rest of the city. The twist is that Whitey’s brother, Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a US Senator.
Writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth struggle to create emotional involvement in the story, failing to choose a character we might identify with. The film begins with testimonies of several of Whitey’s associates. Had Mallouk and Butterworth chosen only one as a narrator, it would have been an unoriginal, yet more effective storytelling device. Instead, the plot loosely follows Whitey and Connolly, not creating enough sympathy for either to provoke any interest from the audience. Edgerton is particularly predictable as Connolly – corrupt, overly eager about furthering his career, and lacking redeeming features.
Cumberbatch is woefully underused as Billy. He appears in a few scenes, looking suitably Senatorially smug, but we never find out what the character thinks of his criminal brother, or why, as a state official, he simply lets him be. Any potential to draw interesting drama out of their relationship is left unexploited.
Black Mass also serves all the usual gangster film fare – a charismatic and unpredictable mob leader with a signature outfit (a black leather jacket and sunglasses); a series of undistinguishable acolytes who are periodically culled for insubordination; a wife and kid sub-plot in an attempt to give the character some emotional depth; a story charting the leader’s rise and dramatic fall. The list goes on. Cooper does little that is original. It seems that a story loosely inspired by true events, rather than a faithful biopic, might have made for a better cinematic experience.
Black Mass has no edge, no standout performances, and no emotional potency. A middling gangster film.