by Philip Price
Director Scott Cooper has always had a knack for creating atmosphere. With only two feature films under his belt he has established quite a distinctive voice, but unfortunately his films have begun to deteriorate in quality as he goes along as well. I really kind of loved Cooper's 2009 debut “Crazy Heart” that won Jeff Bridges a Best Actor statue and even found the consistently depressing “Out of the Furnace” to be a strong if not exceptional entry, but “Black Mass” is by far his least satisfying film yet. It's not for a lack of trying as there is clearly a large amount of effort that has been put into this production. The period setting is especially well rendered and Johnny Depp's lead performance as James "Whitey" Bulger almost single-handedly saves the production from being a complete loss, but even he can only do so much. It is impossible to talk about “Black Mass” without talking about the state of Depp's career and how badly he needed this to be both a critical and commercial success so as to reestablish himself as the "movie star" he was pinned as after “Pirates of the Caribbean” and while I'm sure the film will make a fine amount of money (not a huge amount, but fine) this will in no way place the actor in the "return to form" category many were already deciding to call this. What it is is a fine showcase for a talented actor to do what he does best and with as showy a role as this is Depp certainly delivers. It is all the factors surrounding this performance that don't live up to their potential with the main problem being screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth not finding an interesting way to adapt Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's book.
Depicting the true story of Bulger, a prominent leader of organized crime in South Boston, the film begins in 1975. Jimmy, as he is called by his friends, has been out of a stint at Alcatraz for over a decade at this point and is making his presence felt once again in his hometown of "Southie" as the natives call it. Bulger is also the brother of Massachusetts State Senator William "Billy" Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch). The two brothers tend to keep their affairs separate, but still maintain a healthy relationship with each other as well as with their mother (Mary Klug). While Jimmy has become known for being a brute and not one to mess with he also seems to be well-liked by a lot of people in his neighborhood. It is when Jimmy and Billy's childhood friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), returns to Southie as an FBI agent that our story really begins. Soon after taking up residence again in Boston Connolly contacts the Senator with the idea of enlisting the bad Bulger as an informant so that they might help one another out: Connolly looking the other way when Bulger does his dirty dealings and Connolly getting information on Jimmy's cross-town rival, the Angiulo gang. As the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, Bulger comes to own the turf that is South Boston and define the modern mafia as he not only deals in drugs and extortion, but heavy amounts of murder and racketeering.
Bulger is clearly a fascinating character and the circumstances of his dealings with Connelly are all the more engaging for their unbelievable nature, but the movie that has been constructed around these events has no momentum. Beginning with interrogations of those closest to Bulger “Black Mass” frames the events of Bulger's crime sprees from 1975-1985 as well as it can and gives the events plenty of context while informing us of the motivations for the gangsters actions. Once we are taken into the midst of the events we're being told about though, there is no sense of urgency or narrative drive. Instead, we watch as Bulger goes from one setting to the next almost tempting people to cross him so that he has an excuse to kill them. There are a number of plots and characters that are layered on as the film goes on and you can tell Cooper is trying to build a certain tension between both Connelly and Bulger and Connelly and his superiors. This works part of the time, but it's not until Corey Stoll's character shows up with less than half an hour left in the film that we feel any kind of real distress over the deal Connolly and Bulger struck up. It would have been more than acceptable and probably rather interesting were Cooper to have simply crafted a slow boil of a gangster drama, but the only time we're ever made to feel tense or even compelled is when Depp is on screen doing his thing. But even that gets old after a while given you can only beat someone to a pulp so many times before it feels like the only trick you've got up you're sleeve.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what the movie feels like: a one trick pony. That pony of course, being Depp in another of his transformative roles draws the attention of everyone in the audience and everyone else on screen. Depp plays the notorious gangster as a ripened psychopath determined to succeed above all else and we believe in Bulger's ambition even if we rarely see anything other than him beating up and burying anyone who crosses him. There are hardly any instances of Bulger talking shop or relaying his intelligence to match the ambition which, in some ways, makes it even more impressive that Depp gets across what he does. For actual insight into the character we have to acknowledge the voice overs telling us that after a certain characters death that he then became more of the "crime lord" his legend speaks of or that he was devastated by the passing of his mother to the point it only made things worse for those who got in his way. This is a shame, really, because when Depp shines, he really shines. If you've seen the first trailer for the film you'll recognize the dinner scene that includes Depp and David Harbour discussing a secret family recipe and as this is certainly a show-stopper of a scene that displays the real range of potential this thing possessed. There just aren't enough of these kinds of scenes to add up to a satisfactory portrait. When the film is brutal, it's insanely brutal. It never wants for any bit of in-your-face violence that's standard with this genre or an array of Boston accents that combined more than earn the film it's R-rating.
Cooper has attempted to develop his ensemble with big name stars and strong character actors (Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown and Bill Camp are among the stand-outs) so that this tale of Boston mythology might be full realized, but the majority of this solid cast is wasted. Cumberbatch registers no impression as Billy and there is seemingly no reason other than his name that he got the role was cast as his accent slips in and out frequently. The likes of Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgard, Juno Temple and Julianne Nicholson are more or less wasted in thankless roles while Dakota Johnson only gets one scene to show she can be more that Anastasia Steele. Edgerton though is where the film really gets its crux. As Connolly Edgerton may as well have been the main character of the piece given it is his ideas and his plans that set the events in motion. As this middle man Edgerton is exceptionally complex, but again, the execution of the situation he puts himself and others in just doesn't warrant as much tension as it should on screen. While “Black Mass” is a proficiently made and good-looking movie that will firmly plant Cooper in the realm of mainstream, big budget filmmaking I can only wonder how long it will keep him there.