BLACK MASS Movie Review
There are many good things one could mention about Black Mass: the stellar direction by Scott Cooper, the chilling performance by Johnny Depp supported by a phenomenal supporting cast — Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, Jesse Plemons and Dakota Johnson — cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s muted throwback photography, and the mesmerising score by Junkie XL (Mad Max Fury Road). Yet after the end credits rolled, I admired the technical abilities of the crew, but I still left as cold and empty as the one-dimensional sociopath that Depp portrays on screen.
The screenplay, based on the New York Times Best Seller Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, was written by Jess Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and Mark Mallouk. It mistakenly structures the narrative around eye witness testimonies from associates of Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang, and it narrowly focuses on the period of the late 1970s and early 1980s after Bulger is well established as the mafioso boogeyman.
Any empathy you may feel for Depp’s character is kept at arm’s length and wears thin quickly every time Bulger ends his interactions with a grisly murder. If the point was to create tension and suspense within these moments, the novelty loses its effect when these shock tactics become as predictable as Whitey’s motivations. Black Mass takes no time in helping to understand Bulger’s rise to prominence and glosses over any genuine character moments to which one could relate, such as his dedication to his son.
Black Mass is at its most compelling when the narrative shifts the focus on John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) and how he manipulated his FBI colleagues (Adam Scott and Kevin Bacon) to leverage an alliance between the FBI and Bulger’s crime syndicate. I was reminded of how David Fincher’s Zodiac remains compelling due to it’s own narrative device and how that film wouldn’t have half the impact it it had followed the Zodiac suspect throughout film.
The most intriguing aspects of Bulger’s life are briefly mentioned, such as time served at Alcatraz and his relationships with his influential Senator brother (Cumberbatch) and their mother. But even in these small moments, there’s little to no effort in making Bulger a character to identify with on any level.
Scott Cooper cut this film down from nearly three hours to 122 minutes due to pacing issues. One has to wonder if most of the depth within Black Mass just ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s entirely possible, but hardly the point. The finished product merits accolades for “most involved,” but it unfortunately still leaves much to be desired.