It's tempting to simply dismiss Black Mass as a nothing more than a weary collection of gangster movie cliches. At the very least, it's a reminder that American gangster movies are in serious need of a revival. It feels like we're due for another White Heat, another Godfather, another Goodfellas – a game-changing genre flick that builds on the gangster movies of yesteryear while charting exciting new territory. Black Mass isn't that movie, as it often seems content to recycle successful beats from a host of other, better movies. In almost every scene, you get the sense that you've seen most of this stuff before, and it was more interesting the last time around. Still... there's something here that resonates.
The film details the lives of two men over the course of two decades. The first is James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp, Chocolat), a low-level gangster and the leader of Boston's “Winter Hill Gang.” The other is John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, Warrior), a freshly minted FBI investigator who has known Whitey all his life. The year is 1975, and the FBI has been gathering information on Bulger's activities for a while, but John doesn't want to see his old pal thrown behind bars. Instead, he offers Whitey a proposal: if Whitey is willing to rat out some of the other mobsters in the area (specifically, the leaders of the local Italian mafia), John will ensure that the FBI turns a blind eye to most of Whitey's illegal shenanigans. “There's just one condition,” John says. “You can't kill anybody.” At this point, those in the audience who are familiar with Bulger's life offer a quiet chuckle.
What follows often feels less like a well-crafted story than a handsomely-filmed visual checklist of the important moments in the lives of these two men. Here's the scene where Whitey decides to go ahead and kill somebody, anyway. Here's the scene where John makes his first big moral compromise. Here's the scene where a family member passes away. Here's the scene where a key member of Whitey's organization gets taken out. There's so much material to cover, and so little time to cover it. As a result, a lot of threads feel underdeveloped, like Edgerton's increasingly strained relationship with his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson, Masters of Sex) or the complicated relationship between Whitey and his “respectable” brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game). We move too quickly through the lives of these characters, but somehow, the film still manages to feel oddly sluggish.
Director Scott Cooper struggles to give Black Mass a sense of momentum, but at least he works hard to create a convincing sense of place. The film's production design is consistently excellent, and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi gives the film a faded, moody, low-light look that takes inspiration from The Godfather without actually stealing that film's aesthetic. Not every technical element is worthy of praise, however: Junkie XL's score never adds anything of substance, and on at least one occasion it directly rips off John Powell's score for The Bourne Identity (of all things).
There are countless moments that feel borrowed from Goodfellas (there's a blatant variation on the “Do I amuse you?” scene), but the thing that allows Black Mass to feel at least somewhat unique is that it doesn't borrow that film's familiar “glorious rise/horrible fall” tone. Whitey does indeed grow enormously powerful over the course of the film's first hour, but there's no allure or joy in his success. His life is a series of painful family matters and personal betrayals, and he quickly loses his ability to find happiness in anything. He's a wounded psychopath with a terminally ill soul. John's rise-and-fall arc has a similarly unglamorous quality, as it quickly becomes obvious that the agent's success takes a toll on his ability to think rationally. You never want to be either of these people.
Many have been hailing Johnny Depp's work in the film as a return to “serious” acting after a long line of outlandish, quirk-driven performances (many of which feel like unsuccessful attempts to recapture the undeniable magic of Captain Jack Sparrow). While this is indeed Depp's finest performance in a few years (let's say since Sweeney Todd), he isn't playing a human being. He's playing Bulger as a modern movie monster; an instantly iconic menace with vampire eyes, an unsettling growl of a voice and a demonic grin that quickly dissolves into a bloodthirsty snarl. This is a meticulously-crafted “character” in the same sense that Tonto and Willy Wonka are “characters,” but this one is more consistent, compelling and dangerous than many of Depp's recent creations. Bulger is simultaneously quiet and theatrical; an outlandish character posing as an ordinary human being. It's an unsettling and effective choice on Depp's part.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast is far shakier. Sure, it's loaded with talented people, but too many good actors are undone by their wobbly Bawstan accents. I won't bother trying to rank them from best to worst, but the two most affected by this are Edgerton (whose unconvincing Mark Wahlberg imitation is particularly problematic given the film's constant reminders that he's a real-deal local boy) and Cumberbatch (whose attempt to split the difference between Boston and Ireland results in a distracting dialect no real human being has ever had). Familiar faces like Kevin Bacon (Footloose), Adam Scott (Parks & Recreation), Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Gray) and W. Earl Brown (Deadwood) come and go without making an impression, but there are brief bursts of interest provided by Corey Stoll (House of Cards), Peter Sarsgaard (An Education), Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) and Juno Temple (Killer Joe). It's a stacked cast, but too many of the talented people here feel miscast or misused.
Every so often, Black Mass serves up a scene that doesn't feel like it was pulled directly from a Wikipedia page. Usually, these are intimate scenes between two or three characters: Whitey's pleasant game of cards with his chatty mother, Whitey's intimidating encounter with John's wife, John's squirm-inducing attempt to explain his activities to a suspicious colleague. In these fleeting moments, you see how good this movie could have been and how good Cooper is at handling intimate scenes in which characters reveal their true selves (in retrospect, it makes sense that Crazy Heart – which was almost entirely built on scenes like that – is still his best feature). Alas, it always pulls back and returns to sub-Scorsese mode; hitting gangster movie beats that felt worn out twenty years ago. It's good to see Depp back on his game, but his fine work and the film's somber perspective isn't quite enough to distract us from the more conventional material.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Year: 2015