Black Mass (2015)

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With four films I have been excited to see coming out in the space of a week or so, Oh! That Film Blog headquarters has been a hive of cinematic anticipation over the past few days. The first of these films is the Scott Cooper directed Black Mass, a picture I hoped would fill me with all of the classic gangster film vibes that I crave every now and then and set me up for a week of great movie entertainment.

All I can say is that I hope the best is still yet to come. Black Mass tells the story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (played by Johnny Depp), the notorious Boston based criminal and leader of the infamous Irish-American Winter Hill Gang from the mid 1970s to mid 1990s. For a film billed to be about one of the “most notorious gangsters in U.S. history”, Black Mass falls disappointingly short in most aspects. Rather than a fluid and insightful telling of a classic American crime story, the film feels very much like a disjointed series of violent set pieces, held together by some commanding and enjoyable acting but overall not allowing the audience to really invest in the narrative.  The core premise of FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Whitey’s who bends his morals and abuses his position in order to aid the gangster’s reign, provides something a little different than the usual ‘feds versus criminals’ arc that these types of films display, giving the picture a hook that somewhat distinguishes it in the genre, but it cannot, however, stop it from being incredibly plodding and even dull at certain points. One thing that cannot be denied is that the filmmakers have succeeded in creating a very distinct and atmospheric tone to the film, one that evokes great dread and uncertainty throughout and does serve to keep the audience on the edge of their seats for extended periods, but the key problem surfaces in the fact that these tense periods are interspersed with equally long sequences of slower paced, less well executed scenes that only increase the film’s feeling of disjointedness. The best way I can think to explain my lack of enthusiasm for Black Mass is that the entire picture seems to stay on the surface of its story without ever really delving in to meaningful character development. When we have been spoiled by masterpieces like Goodfellas, The Departed and even more recently the excellent A Most Violent Year, it simply isn’t enough anymore to put together a series of graphic violent encounters and money counting scenes and hope to be considered in the great pantheon of gangster movies. Ultimately, whilst the film feels very true and earnest in its cinematography and aesthetic to the Whitey Bulger Boston crime era, I feel as though I have learnt nothing more about his character or his motivations than I knew before I entered the theatre, instead just witnessing two hours (a very long feeling two hours) of bloody beat downs and gruff accents all hastily tied together by the obligatory biopic “where are they now” epilogue credits.

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Though it was nice to see Johnny Depp remind us that he can still be a serious actor, the fact of the matter is that his make-up transformation in order to resemble Bulger is distracting to the point of taking the audience out of the film. The extensive prosthetic work is not only unnecessary, but it truly does look like Depp has a layer of plastic all over his face, which unfortunately, despite his commanding performance, makes his presence feel more like a parody than a meaningful imitation. There have been plenty of far better biopics that haven’t attempted to so fully transform their leading actors, and it is a shame for Depp that the film’s insistence and desire to make him look so much like the real life figure has resulted in something gimmicky rather than effective. Outside of the distracting lead character, perfectly adequate supporting performances are given by the likes of Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard and Dakota Johnson, but ultimately, for a cast list so impressive, something about the final result just does click.

Overall, Black Mass is film that promised so much and, sadly, delivered very little. It is by no means a bad movie, but in comparison to the very best in its genre, it falls way short of providing any kind of exhilarating or memorable experience. Though I am sure the story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is one that has the potential to capture the imagination, Black Mass fails to tell the story in a really compelling way, and what we end up with is a fairly run of the mill gangster movie that takes no chances and offers nothing of particular merit. At a time when cinema goers are spoilt for choice, this one might be worth waiting to add to the Netflix queue.

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