James “Whitey” Bulger is a fascinating figure, being one of the most notorious gangsters of all time, his alliance with the FBI makes for what could be a compelling investigation into such an unholy coupling. Unfortunately, Black Mass is a mess, feeling like a mixture of a number of gangster movies – in particular, Goodfellas and The Departed – and ultimately seems disconnected as an overall film.
Rarely throughout do you get a proper feeling of who the main protagonists and antagonists are meant to be, and the movie ends up feeling like a documentary strung loosely together. Many parts of the film feel extraneous, such as scenes with Whitey’s wife and son, and the deaths, though well executed in their visceral nature, are rather easy to predict. The manner the film is told, through the testaments of multiple members of the Winter Hill Gang, feels clunky and obtrusive, coming into the movie at random points in order to state fairly obvious exposition. This ultimately contributes to a plot that ought to be fascinating but ends up feeling like a streamlined version of all the best mobster movies of the past 25 years.
Where the movie shines, however, is in the acting. Johnny Depp’s role as Whitey Bulger has been greatly hyped up as the actor’s comeback performance and he exceeds expectations. Depp manages to bring all the facets of the character, allowing him to be very charming and highly terrifying, often swinging between the two emotions on a whim in a way that doesn’t feel overplayed. With this cold, sinister edge that permeates Depp’s performance, you feel that Bulger is a force to be reckoned with – this all adds up to what is easily Depp’s best role in at least a decade. Also strong is Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, the wild card FBI agent who brings Bulger on as an informant. Edgerton manages to capture the confliction between Connolly’s roles of reducing Boston’s crime scene and allowing his childhood friend to evade justice. Additionally, whilst their characters feel quite underdeveloped, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Jesse Plemons also deliver good performances that help to add to an overall strong ensemble cast.
It’s just a shame that these great performances don’t have an amazing film to work with. It may sound unfair, but imagine if the king of gangster movies, Martin Scorsese, directed this – you know that he would be able to craft a strong main narrative whilst being able to nicely develop the supporting action to create a tight overall package. If you need any evidence of this, turn to The Departed (which bears some similarities to the Whitey Bulger story). Indeed, director Scott Cooper certainly seems to be paying lip service to Scorsese but he has none of the magic to pull it off, which ultimately leaves Black Mass as a hollow and disjointed disappointment that could have been so much better.
Is it worth watching?
-Lack of cohesion
-Reliance on gangster movie formula
Whilst Johnny Depp delivers a powerhouse performance as Whitey Bulger, he can’t save Black Mass from being a disorganised and derivative mess.
Watch the trailer for Black Mass
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