Review: Black Mass

For the first time in what seems like forever, I can say without any reservation, hesitation or grounds of suspicion that Academy Award nominee Johnny Depp gave an excellent performance in a motion picture and he didn’t have to sail the high seas or do another film with Tim Burton to do so.

Instead he is the leading man in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a voyeuristic gaze upon the illustrious resume of James “Whitey” Bulger, the sadistic boss of the Winter Hill gang that held sway over South Boston between 1975 and the early 90s through violence, coercion, extortion, racketeering, drugs and murder, to name a few vices.

Image by Warner Bros.

Bulger’s rise to power should be considered one of the most scandalous enterprises in the history of American law-enforcement thanks to disgraced former FBI Agent John Connelly, played by Joel Edgerton. Thanks to an alliance that could have been conceived in hell, Bulger used his right hand to use the FBI as a hammer to pummel and bludgeon the Anguillo Mafia Syndicate out of the streets of North Boston, but he used his left hand to inseminate himself in history as the most ruthless, bloodthirsty and vicious gangster-turned-crime boss in American history.

Angela George, via Wikimedia Commons

Black Mass is perhaps the best anyone will see Johnny Depp in recent history; his performance as “Whitey” Bulger ends the slump he has been in for years. I felt that Depp finally took on a role that truly challenged him as an actor and gave perhaps his best acting performance I’ve seen since Sweeney Todd.

Depp is outstanding, the problem with Black Mass though is that everything else around him just felt so bloated, in terms of overall technical aspects. Scott Cooper and his production team, I felt overreached regarding so many mechanical aspects of the film that it bogged and weighed down the flesh of the feature.

For instance, the camerawork, courtesy of Masanobu Takanayagi. I thought that Black Mass had one medium close-up and one close-up too many.

When it comes to historical dramas, I prefer a great degree of distance when it comes to the filmmaker exploring what he is studying, what he is trying to allow the camera to capture, but the cinematography in Black Mass is too “in-your-face,”/intrusive and I felt that the need to be so up-close and personal into Bulger’s career was so unsteady and uncomfortable. Matched with the narrative style of using the tape-recorder confessions as a mean to introduce the flashbacks, which is where most of the story takes place, it all seemed so garbled looking back.

And you can be sure that the camerawork for Black Mass certainly didn’t make the post-production process any easier. The editing felt clumsy, and I didn’t feel any cohesiveness from how David Rosenbloom handled his duties; the film was particularly straightforward and coherent but sloppy in terms of how the shots were put together.

Also, the use of score was way overdone. Junkie XL contributed the music of the picture but he went overboard regarding when and where to use it. For example the scene where Depp’s Bulger intruded into Julianne Nicholson’s Marianne Connelly’s bedroom to find out why she’s really avoiding him while her husband is having dinner with him, the answer is because she is a good judge of character, Depp brings the right tone of creepiness to his character in this scene but the impact is completely muddled when the music starts playing and the moment just feels so soiled. Why? There was no need to integrate music into that scene at all.

In addition, I felt that the sound quality was poor. The dialogue felt so quick and slurry, I had some difficulty dissecting what these characters were saying at times.

By Tomdog (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

As for director Scott Cooper, I understand that he has done good work in the past and wants to up the ante as he progresses in his career, but there is such a thing as too much and I felt that he wanted to do too much with Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay and the result is that it sullies the film that Johnny Depp shines in. In fact, I could also say that he doesn’t give his supporting actors enough of an opportunity to reach toward Depp’s level.

The supporting cast rarely makes any sort of impact, which is disappointing. Edgerton’s character John Connelly is just as important as Bulger, which stands to reason why he has as much screen time as Depp, but I couldn’t really will myself to like his performance in this film.

Then you look through the rest of the cast and wonder how so little could be done with actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemmons, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, W. Earl Brown, Juno Temple? It’s baffling how talented actors such as these could work with so little material but Black Mass is a scan of James “Whitey” Bulger and how he built his criminal enterprise in plain view of the incompetence of the FBI, so maybe it really isn’t a mystery.

If you enjoy gangster films, let me tell you that this movie is not Goodfellas, though in some ways it feels familiar to Goodfellas, and this doesn’t come close to The Departed, even though both films take place in Boston, but if you are a fan of both Goodfellas and The Departed there is some appeal to this picture.

I’m a Johnny Depp fan and I’m pleased that he buckled down, stopped the shenanigans, challenged himself and gave an excellent performance in Black Mass. Black Mass, the film, is what I’d describe as a bloated mess.


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