Walking out of the theater, I had to remind myself that Black Mass is actually based on a true story. My brain had trouble accepting this fact because nothing about it felt authentic or original. Instead, it felt more like a lazy retread of much better Hollywood gangster stories.
The film allegedly tells the true story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), the infamous Boston crime boss who formed an alliance with the FBI to put his enemies behind bars while giving himself immunity from a multitude of crimes. His childhood friend turned FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) recruits Bulger out of both career ambition and a misguided infatuation with Bulger’s criminal enterprise. Bulger gets drunk with power, Connoly gets in too deep and the normal crime drama beats ensue.
The biggest problem is that the film is rather dull. Whether terribly original or not, it should be easy to make an organized crime film exciting. But, for some reason, the film devotes a lot of time to showing us people sitting around tables discussing how terrible Whitey Bulger is. It relies on telling instead of showing, which is a frustrating choice for a visual medium. In addition to the people discussing Whitey Bulger’s criminal exploits as they are happening, we also see people in interrogation rooms ratting on Bulger after the fact. Watching people brood around dimly-lit tables doesn’t make for exciting cinema. It ends up feeling more like a documentary than a dramatization.
There are some really great flourishes of action, but they are few and far between. I felt so checked out by the time the action scenes rolled around that I had trouble caring about them. They broke up the monotony of all of the talking scenes, but it wasn’t enough to salvage the film.
Another huge problem I had was Johnny Depp’s appearance. I imagine the thought process that went into his look was to make Bulger look like the physical embodiment of cancer since he is the “black mass” the film’s title refers to. It’s a metaphor, I suppose. But he looked so sickly, so decaying that I found it odd no one ever discussed his appearance. He looks like a spectre of death, decaying from the inside. And the real James Bulger looked nothing like that. He was a perfectly-average-looking balding man.
I know Johnny Depp likes playing colorful characters with elaborate costumes, but I’m starting to wonder if this love of playing dress up is hindering his ability to be believable in films. As voice actor Kevin Conroy once told me, “You never want to do something that’s so jarring that it reminds the audience that they’re watching a movie.” Watching this film, I was constantly aware that I was watching Johnny Depp in a silly costume, which kept me from ever really suspending disbelief. I never believed I was watching James Bulger on screen. Insteaqd, I felt like I was watching Depp play a decaying zombie version of Bulger.
I was much more invested in Joel Edgerton’s portrayal of John Connolly. Connolly is a complex figure; one who seems to believe he is doing good by teaming with Bulger to take down the mafia. But he’s so infatuated with Bulger, an infatuation that dates back to their upbringing in South Boston, that he doesn’t realize he’s becoming a criminal himself. Unfortunately, the film only gives us a surface look at Connolly. Edgerton’s portrayal of the character is intriguing, but I found myself wishing the film had really delved deeper into his thoughts and motivations.
I also really enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of James’ brother Billy Bulger. Billy is the President of the Massachusetts Senate and, unlike Connolly, he seems capable of drawing definitive lines between his brother’s criminal exploits and his legitimate career ambitions. He serves as a great foil to Connolly.
Still, while I enjoyed some of the performances and moments in the film, overall I was incredibly underwhelmed by Black Mass. What could have been a really fascinating look at an infamous Boston crime boss and the FBI agent who empowered him instead feels like a lazy Hollywood retread of better crime films – one that, for some odd reason, stars a decaying husk of a man.
Written by Joel Murphy. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org