Black Mass perfectly fits its title. Both the title and the film itself suggest a vague menace, one that can’t really be pinned down in a concrete form, but is all the more threatening because of it inscrutability. Black Mass sort of conveys this feeling without backing it up in the narrative or the characters. I didn’t have a terrible time in the theater watching Black Mass, but walked away feeling a bit cold.
The film tells the story of James “Whitey” Bulger’s (Johnny Depp) alliance with the FBI, which all starts when Southie-native John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) returns home to Boston as an FBI agent, determined to clean up the city. However, as a follower of Whitey as a youngster and a friend of his now-Senator brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), he proposes an alliance. He’ll keep Whitey’s criminal enterprise safe in exchange for information against the Italian mob. In the end, all this amounts to is the FBI conveniently getting rid of the competition and Whitey’s gang gaining more and more power.
The film never really examines Whitey, or Jimmy as he prefers to be called, head on. It attempts to juggle so many perspectives, that of enforcers Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) and Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), that of Whitey’s girlfriend Lindsay Cyr (Dakota Johnson), that of Connolly’s and his wife Marrianne’s (Julianne Nicholson) and that of history’s. I tries to cover so many bases from so many different angles, but it doesn’t end up pulling it off. There’s are a lot of individual scenes that work really well, but the film never comes together in the grand and sweeping way it seems to think it does. It muddies the waters with so many people whose contribution to the story is unclear, that it just feels unfocused rather than epic.
One never gets close to figuring out Whitey Bulger’s character, but granted, the film doesn’t seem too interested in doing that. Coming back to the title, he’s just an unfathomable evil (though to be sure, he doesn’t stand too far apart from other cinematic gangster figures) and the film just asks us to accept this. However, a refusal to look deeper does not equal an unfathomable mystery. While a criminal of Bulger’s stature may merit this sort of fearful kowtowing, the film never really gives us a figure compelling enough to justify it. It tries to cover every aspect from every angle, and in the end, comes up short on the character study of pure evil side, the gangster side, and the law enforcement side.
Much has been made of Johnny Depp’s performance here, but like the movie overall, it’s not great but it’s not terrible either. He does a good job, but strangely, the movie doesn’t ask him to do a hell of a lot besides stare at the screen menacingly. He can stare at the screen menacingly, and is often shown shrouded in darkness like some sort of horror movie monster/villain. Nothing in his performance contradicts this treatment of him in the movie, but I’m not sure it qualifies as an Oscar nomination shoo-in as everyone seems to be saying at this point. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets nominated because Depp is a good actor when he wants to be, and this material is miles ahead of anything he’s had in a while, but in my mind its not quite the comeback performance that everyone’s been describing it as.
I am kicking this movie around quite a bit, but it’s not horrible when you watch it. There are several scenes, including the short story line Whitey’s girlfriend and their son and another scene with Whitey terrorizing Marianne, that are quite good, gripping stuff. They show both of the humanity and the monster within Whitey’s character. Of course you don’t know what’s motivating either side of him, but it does show that these sides exist. I also really have to hand it to the actresses in this movie, they do really well with nearly thankless roles just designed to make the male performances deeper.
Black Mass is a really frustrating movie because the more I think about it, the more I don’t like. I swear, sitting in the theater I was absorbed in what was going on. I wasn’t always on board, but I was always paying attention. It’s a decently watchable film, even if the structuring is flawed. It ultimately fails to gel, but it’s not a disaster of train wreck proportions either.
“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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