Relative to the rest of Johnny Depp’s recent output, ‘Black Mass’ has had seemingly high expectations. In it, Depp portrays notorious, real-life gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, infamous for having murdered a number of people while under the umbrella of FBI protection. At first glance–and after watching numerous trailers–this should be a good movie. The source material is shocking, engaging, and relevant; after all Bulger was just sentenced to life prison in 2013. The cast, also, is phenomenal. Depp aside, there is an A-list of talent in this film with Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, and more. Director Scott Cooper has two pretty decent movies under his belt in Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace.
All of this should have added together to make a great gangster movie, something in the vein of Goodfellas or at least The Town. Instead, Black Mass took all of these great elements and made what is akin to a 2 hour Justice Network show. Set in three different time periods, the movie covers everything superficially and without any of the elements that has made other gangster movies interesting. With everything this movie could have been the question to ask afterwards seems to be, “Why?”
It starts out in 1975 and shows Bulger in his standard operating mode. Killing people for very little reason, intimidating people who disagree with him about anything. The very loose “plot” of the film begins when a boyhood friend turned FBI Special Agent named John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) negotiates a deal with Whitey to trade him FBI intel for information regarding the Angiulo crime family.
Then begins a series of near vignettes showing, alternatively, Bulger’s “humanity” (or basically that he has very little) and his psychopathic dedication to violence. The murders that Bulger commits lack an emotional punch as most characters that die are given very little screen time before they meet their end. Nor does the FBI intrigue story gain much traction as most of the spy work is glossed over for multiple dinner scenes, bar scenes, or scenes where Bulger stares quietly into the distance like any good crazy guy should.
Besides this being a boring way to conduct your movie, it also seems like a considerable disservice to the real stories of real people murdered by Bulger. It’s also a disservice to the fact that there was blatant corruption of government officials that led to the murders of numerous innocent people. Somehow with a story that includes everything every gangster movie needs, along with decades worth of a government cover-up–though not quite worthy of Woodward and Bernstein–the writers and Cooper are unable to come up with anything interesting to say.
As disappointing as this is, one silver lining is the level of performance by the actors. Depp truly does recover a little bit of luster in this role. The cynic in me says it’s because this is the first understated performance that Depp has turned in since… Blow (2001)? Either way, it works and is his best work in a long time. There are also great performances by Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Jesse Plemons (Kevin Weeks), Peter Sarsgaard (Brian Halloran), and a number of others.
This isn’t enough to save the movie, though. After an hour and a half you’re ready for Bulger to be caught just so you can get out of your seat and into the car. It’s sad, but true. If you too are disappointed by this, and you’re looking to watch something engaging about Whitey Bulger, may I suggest the documentary Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger, which is on Netflix. While the production values might not be as good, the story they have to tell is much better and much more expansive than anything these film makers put together.